Premier Brad Wall’s surprise announcement that he’s leaving politics has changed the political landscape dramatically in the province his Saskatchewan Party has ruled for the past 10 years.

Instead of just one leadership campaign during the first half of 2018, there will be two in the first quarter. In response to the Sask. Party’s decision to hold its leadership vote on Jan. 27, the New Democratic Party (NDP) moved up the date of its leadership contest to March from May.

One interesting development emerging in the early days of the Sask. Party leadership campaign is a distinct rural/urban split among the candidates. Scott Moe, the front-runner with the support of 21 caucus-mates, represents the party’s largely rural base. Gord Wyant, a lawyer in Saskatoon, who until recently had a Liberal Party of Canada membership, represents the party’s less conservative, urban wing.

Other Sask. Party leadership candidates: Tina Beaudry-Mellor, a former University of Regina political science instructor, who also hopes to appeal to urbanites; Alanna Koch, a long-time senior bureaucrat and a college classmate of Wall’s, is the status quo candidate; and Ken Cheveldayoff, a veteran party stalwart, who is said to have significant backroom support.

The NDP leadership race is more clear-cut, with front-runner and former interim party leader Trent Wotherspoon having the support of six of eight NDP caucus members and the party establishment.

Ryan Meili, a doctor in Saskatoon, who has an ambitious and expensive plan to overhaul the province’s social programs, has a strong following among more left-leaning members of the party, but not in caucus.

The bigger issue, though, is which way the province’s voters will go in the next election. Although things look bleak for the governing party, with a slumping, resources-based economy, a tough, unpopular budget and a few lingering scandals, a lot can change in three years.

Still, Wall’s retirement leaves big shoes to fill – not just for the Sask. Party, but also for the province and the country. Wall, a former radio DJ, was able to bridge the rural/urban divide in Saskatchewan politics. His youthful energy, quick wit and folksy, easy-going manner made him an ideal leader for a rural, but increasingly urban province.

However, there’s another side to Wall, a deeply partisan and conservative side he has shown in recent years, particularly since the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In fact, Wall has taken on the mantle of spokesperson for the West, especially with the election of the NDP in Alberta and, more recently, in B.C. Wall has declared himself an implacable foe of the federal Liberals’ carbon-pricing scheme, an unabashed booster of energy pipelines and the oil and gas industry’s staunchest defender.

He recently blamed the Trudeau government for holding Western Canada hostage, driving a wedge between East and West. Some critics have suggested Wall has gone too far, letting his love for the cut-and-thrust of partisan politics overrule his moderate political instincts.

That said, his approval ratings have risen since his retirement announcement, suggesting many people like his get-tough- with-Ottawa talk.

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