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CALGARY, Alberta (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 has a high chance of going 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 Brian Jean, the head of the currently bigger Wildrose, has said he would vie for the new leadership. Terms of the merger are also unclear and subject to talks.
Nonetheless, a tie-up would bolster the pro-business right against the incumbent left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP), which has drawn the ire of conservatives by imposing a carbon tax on the emissions-heavy energy sector and by what critics see as heavy government spending despite budget deficits.
"Today we are sending a message to the NDP ... You will be facing a strong, united opposition." Kenney said after his victory in the province's largest city of Calgary.
"To our friends and fellow travelers in the Wildrose party ... let us reunite the family."
The next election has to take place on or before May 31, 2019. A victory by the merged conservative party would 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 voter anger over low oil prices, entitled politicians and government budget woes.
Now in its second year, the NDP government takes credit for federal approvals of pipeline projects that would boost the province's economy by exporting its landlocked crude. But low global oil prices have largely persisted, taking a toll on Alberta's commodity-dependent economy. 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. 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.
NDP leader and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley tweeted her congratulations minutes after Kenney's victory.
Editing by Leslie Adler and Tom Brown