Voters in Alberta, the epicenter of conservative politics in Canada, will select a new provincial government on Monday.
Before the pandemic, the governing United Conservative Party appeared to have a firm hold on power. But last year, large and angry demonstrations against pandemic restrictions and against vaccine mandates helped spark a trucker convoy in the province .
The convoy spread east, paralyzing Canada’s capital, Ottawa, and blocking vital crossings with the United States, including a bridge linking Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, disrupting billions of dollars in trade.
A small group of social conservatives within the United Conservatives ousted their leader, Jason Kenney, ending his premiership, after the government refused to lift pandemic measures.
The party replaced Mr. Kenney with Danielle Smith, a far-right former radio talk show host and newspaper columnist prone to incendiary comments; she compared people who were vaccinated against Covid-19 to supporters of Hitler.
Ms. Smith also likes to extol right-wing U.S. politicians, for example, calling Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican running for president, her hero.
She also has floated ideas that most Canadians would never support, like charging fees for public health care.
Ms. Smith now finds herself, analysts say, far to the right of many conservative loyalists, turning what should been a near-certain victory for her party into a close race that has provided an opening for their opponents, the New Democratic Party, a leftist party.
“This would not be a close race if anyone other than Danielle Smith was leading the U.C.P.,” said Janet Brown, who runs a polling firm based in Calgary, Alberta’s largest city.
The labor-backed New Democrats are led by Rachel Notley, a lawyer, who is seeking to steer the party to a second upset victory in the province in recent years.
In 2015, she led the New Democrats to power for the first time in Alberta’s history, thanks in part to a fracturing of the conservative movement into two feuding parties.
The stunning win broke a string of conservative governments dating to the Great Depression. But her victory coincided with a collapse in oil prices that cratered the province’s economy. Ms. Notley’s approval ratings plunged and the United Conservatives took over in 2019.
Albertans vote for local representatives in the provincial legislature and the party that wins the most seats forms the government, with its leader becoming premier.
Ms. Smith’s support is largely based in the province’s rural areas, surveys show, while Ms. Notley’s path to victory will likely be through Alberta’s urban centers, including its two largest cities, Edmonton and Calgary.
Edmonton, the provincial capital and a city with a large union presence, is likely to back the New Democrats.
That could make Calgary, which is generally more conservative leaning, a deciding factor. Calgary also has a growing ethnic population, particularly immigrants from South Asia, and Ms. Smith’s is unpopular with many of those voters because of some of her extreme statements.
Why It Matters
If Ms. Smith’s brand of conservatism fails to return her party to office in Canada’s most conservative province, the federal Conservative Party of Canada may need to reconsider its strategy as it prepares to take on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party in the next national elections.
The federal conservatives also replaced the party’s leader during the pandemic with a combative right-wing politician, Pierre Poilievre, who welcomed truck convoy protesters to Ottawa, the capital, with coffee and doughnuts. Mr. Poilievre shares Ms. Smith’s penchant for promoting provocative positions.
Even a narrow victory for Ms. Smith could actually be a loss, if it means fewer conservative seats in the provincial legislature, said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
In that scenario, Ms. Smith could find her position as premier and party leader tenuous and many of the policies she promotes could be cast aside, he said.
“If she loses, she’s gone,” he said. “If she wins, I think she’s still gone.”