Klein Wins 4th Term as Alberta Premier

The King is dead.

Klein Wins 4th Term as Alberta Premier

The King is dead. Long live the King!

FOR SOME REASON, this phrase came to mind as I contemplated the results of last week's Alberta election. Ralph KLEIN - long ago dubbed King Ralph because he's always triumphed during 25 years in politics - is, of course, far from dead. The Conservative party romped to its 10th consecutive majority government, and its fourth under Klein's leadership. But even as he savoured victory, there were portents that King Ralph is entering what could be a prolonged political death spiral. The resurgent opposition forces more than doubled their seat count, while the Tories' popular vote shrunk from 62 per cent in 2001 to 47 per cent. For the first time in nine civic and provincial elections, the former Calgary mayor failed to increase his margin of victory.

Far more troubling are the signs of discontent in Tory ranks. In Klein's home riding of Calgary-Elbow, Liberal candidate Stephen Brown, a political nobody, grabbed over a third of the popular vote. And in the key battleground of Edmonton, Tory candidates were heard assuring voters that Klein, 62, would be gone in less than a year - an unthinkable treason even a few months ago.

How did it come to this? In truth, the normally cheerful Klein has been out of sorts lately. He ran a listless, don't-worry-be-happy campaign and pointedly refused to discuss any hot-button issues, such as health care. Even on election night he seemed, well, bored by it all. Asked to describe his mandate, Klein replied, "It's to do what the bosses [the voters] want you to do."

Having promised nothing, Klein now has a free hand. Many still believe he'll retire - or be pushed out by ambitious leadership aspirants - within 18 months. Yet the premier insists he'll serve his full term (in one of those bizarre Klein gestures, he even signed a pledge to that effect in a reporter's notebook during the campaign). Klein's appointment last week of Rod Love as his chief of staff may or may not signal he's serious about staying. Love, who held the same position from 1992 to 1998, was one of the architects of the Klein budget-cutting revolution. He's a straight-shooter who relishes a good fight and might be just the man to push through oft-promised health-care reforms, including greater privatization and possible challenges to the Canada Health Act. But Love is also a key supporter of one of Klein's would-be successors, former Alberta treasurer Jim Dinning. And on election night, Love was one of many predicting Klein would be gone by 2006.

In any event, expect Klein to continue to be a disruptive force on the federal scene. He may have been lukewarm about calling the special election that last week saw four "senators-in-waiting" selected from among 10 candidates. But watch Klein howl as Paul Martin declines to appoint them to the Red Chamber. There is no love lost between the premier and the PM. And as long as King Ralph remains on his throne, he will spare no opportunity to upstage Martin.

Maclean's December 6, 2004