Political pundits say there will be one clear loser in Tuesday's byelection in northern Alberta, but it won't be any of the candidates.
No matter the final tally in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche, they say, Premier Jason Kenney faces an unfavourable outcome since the constituency's three main contenders all oppose his leadership.
Lori Williams, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says she expects longtime politician Brian Jean to win the seat for the United Conservative Party.
"His whole candidacy is about removing [Kenney] as leader of the party," says Williams. "There will be a certain number of UCP members and general voters who find that appealing."
Not only will some voters support Jean because of his standing in the community, she says, others will see him as a means to express their discontent with the current government.
'Not good news for Jason Kenney'
Jean is a former leader of the Wildrose Party and ran for the UCP leadership when his party merged with the Alberta's Progressive Conservatives, but lost to Kenney.
He is running against Paul Hinman, leader of the Wildrose Independence Party, and NDP candidate Ariana Mancini.
"It's not good news for Jason Kenney if Brian Jean wins. It's not good news if Paul Hinman wins. But what if the vote on the rights gets split and the NDP wins?" says Williams.
"Also, not good news for Kenney."
The seat came open last August when UCP backbencher Laila Goodridge resigned to run, successfully, for the federal Conservatives.
Mancini has said the byelection is about sending a message to the UCP government about its management of the COVID-19 crisis and about the need to better support struggling Alberta families.
Political scientist Duane Bratt, also from Mount Royal University, says the best scenario for Kenney would be an NDP win, but Bratt adds that's unlikely to happen.
"He could claim that infighting within the UCP will allow [NDP Leader] Rachel Notley to become victorious [in the next election], so the only way to 'keep these darn socialists out is by rallying around me,"' said Bratt.
He agrees it appears many people are betting on a Jean victory.
"Once he won the nomination, I think the deck was set."
Byelection comes ahead of leadership vote
Both political analysts says the byelection comes at a crucial time: United Conservatives are to gather In Red Deer, Alta., on April 9 for a vote on Kenney's leadership.
The premier has framed the vote not as a referendum on his performance, but as a way to stave off fringe elements threatening the party and government while he faces low popularity numbers.
A UCP spokesperson said there are about 5,000 people registered for the meeting and it could double in coming weeks.
Bratt said a high turnout could signal strong opinions both for and against Kenney's leadership.
If he receives between 50 to 70 per cent approval, it could further complicate an already tense situation, Bratt suggests.
"A bit more than a month ago, I was thinking Kenney's got control of the party … he's probably going to win the leadership race," says Williams.
"Now, increasingly, I [think] this is too close to call."
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