Conservatives choose interim leader after uniting in Alberta

FILE PHOTO: Conservative Member of Parliament Jason Kenney (L) speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, September 19, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - The two right-leaning parties in Canada’s oil-rich province of Alberta elected an interim leader on Monday after voting over the weekend to form a new conservative alliance to take on the ruling New Democratic Party (NDP).

Provincial legislator Nathan Cooper of the Wildrose Party won the vote to head the new United Conservative Party, he told reporters. He is expected to head the movement until Oct. 28, when a permanent party chief will be elected.

The new party could present a serious challenge in the 2019 provincial election to the left-leaning NDP, which ended 40 years of Conservative rule in a shock win two years ago. The NDP was partly helped by a divided right at the time.

In separate ballots over the weekend, the Progressive Conservative (PC) and Wildrose parties each voted by an overwhelming 95 percent margin to support the merger of the two political groups.

Alberta is home to Canada’s vast oil sands and is the largest exporter of crude to the United States. But it has been struggling with a three-year slump in global oil prices and a C$10.3 billion ($8.24 billion) deficit.

The energy industry is likely to welcome unification of the right, with the new party eager to develop policies aimed at cutting costs for the oil and gas sector.

Jason Kenney and Brian Jean, leaders of the PC and Wildrose parties, are chief contenders for the alliance’s permanent leadership position. Both have pledged to scrap unpopular environmental regulations, including carbon taxes and the phase-out of coal-fired power plants.

A single-term legislator, Cooper represents an electoral district in southern Alberta and was a municipal councilor before joining provincial politics.

Cooper said the United Conservative Party would file paperwork with Canada’s elections regulator to gain formal recognition, and that he will apply to the speaker of the legislature for official status.

Reporting by Ethan Lou; Editing by Tom Brown and Lisa Shumaker