This past Saturday, Manitoba Liberals gathered in a Winnipeg hotel ballroom to accomplish two critically important goals.
First, the Liberals needed to choose a new leader. And second, they needed to produce a show of force sufficient to announce their return to competitive politics in this province.
Well, at least they have a new leader.
Winnipeg lawyer Rana Bokhari, a newcomer to politics at any level, won a first-ballot victory over challengers Dougald Lamont and Bob Axworthy. With 431 votes, Bokhari garnered just one vote more than any candidate needed to win on the first ballot.
Bokhari has composed an interesting narrative in her first attempt at electoral politics. She is young, a first-generation Canadian, a successful philanthropist and a woman of Indo-Canadian descent who happens to have no political resumé. Those are enough to generate some interest among voters.
Weighing down this story is a rather embarrassing turnout by the Grits this past weekend. Of the 2,146 Liberals eligible to vote, only 857 votes were cast, and the majority of those came in the form of advance ballots. Fewer than 300 were registered for the actual leadership convention.
One of the goals of any leadership process is to spark broader public interest in both the new leader and the party. With less than half of registered party members actually voting, and only about one-seventh showing up for the Saturday vote, the Liberals have failed miserably in their bid to show this province they are back in the game.
Manitoba would benefit greatly from having three competitive parties all vying to form the provincial government. That kind of competition keeps all of the parties and their leaders sharp. It puts more emphasis on policies and ideas and de-emphasizes shallow retail political skills.
More importantly, three viable political parties would be a sign interest in politics in general is on the rise. Perhaps it was too much to ask the Liberals, a perennial and distant third-place presence in most provincial elections, to single-handedly turn around the chronic apathy that afflicts voters. But they could have sent a shock wave through the province with a show of force.
If there is any hope to be taken out of the Liberal leadership result, it is that Bokhari sold 600 new memberships. That is, on its own, far less than you would expect a leadership candidate for a viable provincial party to sell, but it was certainly a strong showing when compared to her opponents. And perhaps it's a sign the new Grit leader can start turning around her party's fortunes slowly but surely as we get nearer to the next provincial election, expected sometime between the fall of 2014 and the spring of 2015.
The here and now for Bokhari will be difficult. She does not have a seat in the Manitoba legislature and is not likely to have a chance to win one until the next general election.
Former leader Jon Gerrard is the Liberals' lone MLA. Although he has relinquished the leadership, Gerrard has said he intends to finish out his current term as MLA for River Heights. And he has strongly suggested he will be around to run for re-election next time around.
Bokhari stands a good chance of winning a byelection in River Heights should Gerrard change his mind and step down. Liberal support in Manitoba is concentrated in that riding, and it seems reasonable to conclude the Grits would respond to retain that seat.
However, to become a more viable player in provincial politics, the Liberals need to have more than one seat. In that context, it may make sense for Bokhari to pick another seat and spend time cultivating the support needed to win it outright.
Those next two years will certainly be sufficient to test Bokhari's mettle.
Even without a seat, she will have to be available on a daily basis to respond to events in the legislature. She will have to travel through all 57 ridings, rebuilding riding associations and cultivating new members and volunteers. She will have to make public appearances at community events of all kinds. And she will have to find a staff talented enough to change the party's fortunes.
The future is not necessarily bright for Bokhari's Liberals. But it could be with hard work and a little luck.
Liberals did not use the leadership vote to demonstrate they deserve to be treated seriously in provincial politics. Bokhari has two years to make Manitoba voters forget that underwhelming start.