CALGARY, Alberta, March 18 (Reuters) - A candidate with plans to merge Alberta's splintered right-leaning factions has won the leadership of the province's Progressive Conservatives (PC), the party said on Saturday, heralding a political shift in Canada's oil heartland.
The merger plan by former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney will likely go through as the other right-leaning faction, the Wildrose party, has agreed to it.
But Kenney may not get to shepherd the merged conservative party, as the head of Wildrose, Brian Jean, has said he would vie for the new leadership. Wildrose is currently the bigger party.
Nonetheless, a merger bolsters the pro-business right against the incumbent left-leaning New Democrats, who have drawn the ire of conservatives by imposing a carbon tax on the emissions-heavy energy sector and by what critics says is heavy government spending despite budget deficits.
The next election has to be called on or before May 31, 2019. A victory by the new merged conservative party will restore the status quo for the mostly right-voting province and could bring drastic changes, as both the PC and Wildrose have opposed most of the NDP's policies.
The NDP rose to power in 2015 after nearly half a century of PC rule in Alberta, aided by a divided right and on a pledge to review oversight of the oil and gas sector. The party capitalized on voter anger over low oil prices, entitled politicians and government budget woes.
That election nearly decimated the then-incumbent PC, but Wildrose made gains and remained the Official Opposition with the second highest number of seats in the provincial legislature.
Now in the second year of its mandate, the NDP government takes credit for federal approvals of two pipeline projects that would boost the province's economy by exporting its landlocked crude. But during the NDP's term, global oil prices fell even further, to as low as $26 a barrel, taking a toll on Alberta's economy, which is largely dependent on the commodity. The provincial government projects deficits until 2024.
Representing an Alberta federal electoral district, Kenney served in multiple portfolios in former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet, most recently defense. He survived the 2015 federal election in which his party lost power, but resigned his parliamentary seat shortly after to seek the leadership of the aligned but separate PC party in Alberta. (Editing by Leslie Adler)