By Nia Williams
(Reuters) -Danielle Smith was elected leader of the ruling United Conservative Party (UCP) in Canada's oil-rich Alberta province on Thursday, after running on promises of greater autonomy, in particular pushing back against federal government policies.
Smith, who will replace Jason Kenney as premier, won 53.77% of the vote from party members and will lead the UCP into a provincial election scheduled for May next year. She will formally become premier when the province's Lieutenant Governor invites her to form a government on Tuesday.
"I'm back," Smith told a cheering crowd in Calgary.
"Today marks a new beginning in the Alberta story. No longer will Alberta ask permission from Ottawa to be prosperous and free ... we will not have our resources landlocked or our energy phased out of existence by a virtue-signalling prime minister."
The western province of Alberta has long had a strained relationship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government in Ottawa, stemming from a sense that the federal government's climate polices are damaging Canada's oil and gas industry.
Smith's most eye-catching policy is a promise to immediately table the Alberta Sovereignty Act, allowing the province to refuse to enforce specific federal laws or policies "that violate the jurisdictional rights of Alberta".
She was the frontrunner to win the leadership race, followed by Travis Toews, who was provincial finance minister until May when he resigned to run for leader.
Smith, who is not an elected member of Alberta's legislative assembly, comes to power during a record bonanza in energy revenues thanks to soaring global oil prices. Alberta is home to the bulk of Canada's oil and gas industry, as well as its vast, high carbon-emitting oil sands.
Her victory to become premier marks a stunning political turnaround.
She was leader of the right-wing Wildrose Party from 2009 to 2014, but led a mass defection to join Premier Jim Prentice's Progressive Conservatives (PCs) and then failed to win the nomination to run for the PCs in a 2015 provincial election.
Smith revived her career with a stint as a talk radio host, during which she interviewed prominent Alberta politicians but also railed against public health restrictions including lockdowns and vaccine mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kenney, a former federal Conservative government minister, had a pugnacious relationship with Trudeau and mounted legal challenges to a federal carbon price and its impact assessment process for major infrastructure projects.
But his handling of the pandemic undermined his standing among ordinary Albertans and his own party.
Kenney managed to antagonise both right-wing Albertans, who thought the province should not impose any public health measures to curb the spread of the disease, and those who felt Kenney moved too slowly to introduce restrictions, allowing hospitals to be overrun.
He called a leadership review last year to stave off a caucus revolt, but received only 51.4% of the vote from party members and announced in May he would step down.
Kenney congratulated Smith on her victory in a message on Twitter.
Alberta has traditionally been a conservative stronghold and an Angus Reid poll released last week found the UCP lead the opposition New Democratic Party by six points, with 47% of those polled saying they would vote UCP if an election were held immediately.
(Reporting by Nia Williams and Kanishka SinghEditing by Josie Kao and Robert Birsel)