MONTREAL — After 41 years at the helm of Canada's oil-rich Alberta province, the Tories are facing possible defeat in a general election on Monday, against a new far right party.
The Wildrose Party, named after the province's official prickly flower, was formed in 2008 amid growing disaffection with the Tories over fiscal and social policies, judged to be straying from its libertarian roots.
The scion of the ruling Progressive Conservatives was able to capture seven percent of the popular vote in elections that year, but failed to win a single seat in the Alberta legislature.
Four years on, the Wildrose Party is back, led by former journalist Danielle Smith and leading by seven percent in the polls.
The battle lines were drawn at the height of the last recession when the current Progressive Conservative government proposed hiking royalties paid by companies exploiting the oil sands, the third largest oil reserve in the world and a key energy supply to the United States.
"Well, what happened then, we saw all kinds of money from big oil and gas companies going to the Wildrose Party, big donations," political scientist Bruce Foster of Calgary's Mount Royal University told AFP.
The situation for Alberta's natural ruling party worsened when last October Alison Redford became the province's first female premier and promised to boost spending on health and education to keep up with soaring economic and population growth.
"The far, far right of the Progressive Conservatives went to the Wildrose," believing that the party had become "more progressive than conservative," explained Frederic Boily of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, the provincial capital.
The Wildrose's arrival on Alberta's political scene reminds some of the Tea Party's entry in the United States. Both Boily and Foster agree on the comparison.
During its rise, the Wildrose has drawn support from key Canadian conservatives, including members of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Tory caucus, and even Harper's former chief of staff Tom Flanagan, who today is managing the 41-year-old Smith's election campaign.
"You hear from many people who joined the Wildrose say 'I didn't leave the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, they left me,'" said Foster.
Many of them were fiscal conservatives upset that the province's riches have been squandered. After paying off the province's decades-old debt in 2005, Alberta now faces a Can$886 million deficit this year.
Wildrose supporters see in Redford, a 47-year-old human rights lawyer, "someone who is going to bring in too much state control, who is going to restrict their freedom," Foster added.
In the dying days of the election campaign, the Wildrose has faced a backlash in the media over racist, homophobic and bigoted public comments of its candidates, as well as ridicule over its platform debunking climate change science.
But it's unclear if this has affected voting intentions.
Wildrose leader Smith responded to critics by saying that she is personally pro-choice on abortion and supports gay marriage, and vowed that a Wildrose government would not legislate on "sensitive moral issues."
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Photo by Dave Cournoyer (Flickr: Danielle Smith) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons