CALGARY (Reuters) - Alberta Premier Alison Redford said on Wednesday she would resign as leader of the oil-rich Canadian province following an expenses scandal that sank her party's popularity.
Redford became Alberta's first female premier when she won leadership of the ruling Progressive Conservative party in 2011. She came from behind in the polls to win a majority government in an election the following year.
"Too much time has been spent over the last few weeks on questions of loyalties and allegiances," she told reporters in Alberta's provincial capital Edmonton.
"I am not prepared to allow party and caucus infighting to get in the way of building a better future for our province and for all Albertans and that is why today I am announcing, with profound optimism for Alberta's future, I am resigning as premier of Alberta effective this Sunday evening."
Redford's departure comes after the Progressive Conservative government, which has run the Western Canadian province for more than four decades, suffered another defection on Monday in the latest protest against her leadership.
Donna Kennedy-Glans, a junior member of Redford's cabinet, said on Monday she would resign as associate minister for electricity and renewable energy and sit as an independent in the provincial legislature.
The resignation was the second from the Progressive Conservative caucus in less than a week and followed a series of controversies related to Redford's travel and spending habits.
Redford agreed earlier this month to repay C$45,000 ($40,300) spent on first-class tickets for her and an aide to attend Nelson Mandela's funeral. During her career as a lawyer Redford briefly worked with the former South African leader.
She also repaid the costs of taking her daughter's friends on government aircraft. She has been criticized for using the planes to attend party fundraising events.
Last week Len Webber resigned from the Progressive Conservative caucus to sit as an independent. Like Kennedy-Glans, Webber represents a constituency in Calgary, the province's largest city and home to most of its oil industry.
While announcing his departure, Webber said Redford was "not a nice lady."
CBC News reported on Monday that 10 members met in secret on the weekend to consider whether they would leave Redford's government and sit as independents.
Even so, Redford's abrupt resignation came as a surprise to some observers. She will remain a member of the legislative assembly.
"Despite the pressure she has been under I thought if she was going to resign she would do it in a month or so and have a plan set out in terms of a new leader," said Bruce Cameron, a pollster with consultancy Return on Insight in Calgary.
"It may have been motivated by some potential high-level defections that were threatened."
Speculation now turns to who will take over as leader of Canada's wealthiest province.
Alberta, the largest source of oil imported into the United States, is flush with cash from production from the oil sands in the northern part of the province around Fort McMurray.
But while the Alberta government's operating budget is in surplus, Redford spent heavily on capital programs to cope with rapid population growth. This added billions in debt to a province that prided itself on being debt-free before her election.
Redford won 61 of 87 seats with 44 percent of the vote in the last election. An Angus Reid online poll published on Monday by the Edmonton Journal pegged current support for the party at just 23 percent, half of that commanded by the opposition Wildrose Party.
The Progressive Conservative caucus will elect an interim leader by Sunday and is likely to elect a new leader within four to six months, Cameron said.
Potential leadership candidates include Deputy Premier Dave Hancock, Finance Minister Doug Horner, Solicitor General Jonathan Dennis and Minister of Service Alberta Doug Griffiths.
One of the key tasks facing the new leader will be helping Alberta's energy industry secure access to new markets and alleviate pipeline congestion that has weighed on oil prices and eaten into government royalties.
Redford made progress last year in reaching a tentative agreement with British Columbia Premier Christy Clark on the conditions that would need to met for controversial pipelines to be built to the Pacific Coast.
"We ... made significant progress in bilateral relations between our provinces, helping to secure our shared economic and environmental future," Clark said in a statement following Redford's resignation.
(Additional reporting by Julie Gordon in Vancouver; Additional writing by Jeffrey Hodgson in Toronto; Editing by Eric Walsh)