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The abrupt resignation of Alberta’s premier has shocked the western province and raised questions about the ideological direction of Canada’s conservative movement amid rising far-right and populist influences.

Jason Kenney announced late Wednesday that he was stepping down from the province’s top job after barely surviving a leadership exam. A slim majority of party members had voted to keep him in power – 51.4 per cent – but Kenney said that support was not enough to justify remaining as leader of the ruling United Conservatives.

“The result is not what I hoped for or frankly what I expected,” Kenney told his supporters. The Prime Minister had previously said he would consider any result above 50% a victory.

“He had seemed so stubbornly determined to stay on his leader … with even a single vote more than those who voted against him,” said Lori Williams, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary. “So his decision was a very big surprise.”

Once a star cabinet minister under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Kenney returned to Alberta to unite warring Conservative factions and unseat the ruling New Democratic Party.

He won a strong majority in 2019, but his tenure was marred by party infighting and threats of mutiny. His pugilist politics won him allies, but also created a growing list of enemies and disgruntled party members.

“It takes a truly extraordinary leader to try to persuade people who may dislike and disrespect each other to work together for the good of governance,” Williams said, pointing out that the only Canadian politician who can effectively meet that challenge was Harper.

Kenney’s popularity plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic as he battled criticism within his own party amid fierce debates over public health measures. Right-wing elements were angered by restrictions on business and travel, but more moderate party members feared an overwhelmed health system. At one point during the pandemic, Alberta had one of the highest coronavirus infection rates in North America.

As the debate intensified over who should speak on behalf of the party, the Prime Minister warned in March that the Tory movement was being invaded by ‘far-right lunatics… trying to take control of the asylum’ .

But turning against his own party likely accelerated challenges to his leadership, say former supporters.

Rick Bell, a Calgary Sun political columnist and longtime defender of the incumbent prime minister, wrote that Kenney’s downfall was “staggering” but expected.

“He never listened. Never. He was right. We were all wrong. Until we were right,” Bell wrote.

Even though the province has lifted its public health restrictions and significant oil and gas revenues are flowing into the provincial treasury, voters seem unwilling to forgive Kenney.

Kenney joins a growing list of Conservative premiers unable to complete their terms: Since 2004, Alberta has seen seven premiers. Only one – New Democrat Rachel Notley – has served a full term.

But Kenney’s departure amid bitter wrangling over the party’s ideological direction will weigh on the current race for a federal Conservative leader.

The national party has already ousted two of its leaders in recent years, Erin O’Toole and Andrew Scheer, who both campaigned on the right and then tried to woo centrist voters in a general election.

“There are almost competing imperatives facing a leader of a conservative coalition party. One is to win the support of their own caucus – and the other is to win an election by appealing to a wider range of voters,” Williams said. “But neither of them seem really compatible.”

A federal Liberal from Alberta has called recent resignations a “worrying trend” among his political rivals.

“The conservative movement in this country is headed for a dark place. And I find that very troubling,” Randy Boissonnault told reporters Thursday.

As the Alberta Conservatives wrestle with the future of their party, Williams sees a difficult and unenviable task for the would-be leader.

“You really have to wonder who would want to take on this. Who would want to risk their reputation and their political future on the challenges that we see bubbling within this party?

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