March 1, 2008 / 12:30 AM / 10 years ago

Undecided voters cloud fortunes of Alberta leader

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Alberta’s Conservatives look set to extend the party’s 37-year grip on power in the oil-rich Canadian province despite widespread grumbling over energy policies and strains caused by a years-long boom.

<p>Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach speaks to the media as he announced an election in Alberta, February 4, 2008. REUTERS/Dan Riedlhuber</p>

Still, analysts wonder if unusually large numbers of undecided voters before an election on Monday, and calls for change from residents of all political stripes, may translate into a reduced majority for party leader Ed Stelmach, or perhaps even a minority.

“We know that people want change, we know they are upset on any number of issues, but at least a plurality of voters seems to be saying they’re going to vote for the Conservatives,” Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Mount Royal College in Calgary, said on Friday. “There’s a disconnect here.”

This week, a Leger Marketing poll of 900 Albertans put support for the Conservatives at 40 percent. The centrist Liberals had 18 percent, the right-wing Wildrose Alliance had 6 percent and the left-wing New Democratic Party had 5 percent.

However, the poll pegged the undecided vote at a gaping 27 percent, making predictions difficult.

Stelmach’s Progressive Conservatives have tried to paint themselves as a change from the old guard, even though many of the same faces are running for reelection. The party came to power during the first Nixon administration in the United States.

Since becoming leader of the province with the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East in late 2006, Stelmach, 56, has sometimes gone against the grain of a party that is used to ruling and racking up billion-dollar budget surpluses.

The farmer-turned-politician’s millstone has been former Premier Ralph Klein’s admission that the government failed to plan for the unprecedented boom that accompanied a buildup of the energy industry to supply the huge U.S. market.

That led to shortages of affordable housing and hospital beds, crumbling schools and roads, a stretched workforce and a belief by many in the province of 3.3 million that good times brought about by surging oil prices have passed them by.

Harold Jansen, political scientist at the University of Lethbridge, sees the Conservatives as being most vulnerable in the major cities of Calgary and Edmonton.

Among hot-button issues are Stelmach’s decision to boost annual energy royalties by C$1.4 billion, drawing the ire of Alberta’s main industry and prompting companies to threaten to pull billions of dollars of investment.

He has since said he will make changes to his new royalty regime to soften the impact on natural gas producers.

Stelmach also angered environmentalists by announcing a climate change plan that sees greenhouse gas emissions rising for the next 12 years before falling.

His government will not impose caps on emissions that would hamper growth in production of the province’s vast oil sands, target of more than $100 billion of industry spending.

But the opposition has failed to gain much traction in the polls. The Liberals and the NDP hope newcomers to Alberta’s cities will seek to differentiate themselves from staunchly conservative rural areas, Jansen said.

At dissolution, the Conservatives had 60 seats in the 83-seat legislature. The Liberals had 16 seats, the NDP had four, and the Wildrose Alliance had a single seat. There was one seat held by an independent and one was vacant.

($1=$0.98 Canadian)

Reporting by Jeffrey Jones; editing by Janet Guttsman

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