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B.C. New Democratic Party leader Carole James in her Victoria legislature office hours after stepping down as Party leader December 6, 2010.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. Liberals will select their new leader in late February, but exactly when the rival New Democrats pick a full-time skip is still up in the air.

While the NDP on Monday wouldn't rule out having a permanent leader in place before the Liberals do, party officials couldn't say when a leadership contest to replace Carole James might be held or precisely how it would work.

The uncertainty about what comes next for the opposition party led political scientists to speculate the Liberals might well have gained an advantage for the next provincial election, whatever the timeline on that vote.

Jan O'Brien, provincial secretary for the B.C. NDP, said an interim leader will be named in January after a recommendation by the party's caucus. That recommendation will be forwarded to the provincial council, the party's governing body between conventions.

But what happens after the interim leader is selected - and when - has yet to be determined.

"After that, we don't have deadlines set out in our constitution for when a leadership contest must take place," Ms. O'Brien said, adding she couldn't speculate on when a full-time leader would be named.

Ms. O'Brien said under new NDP guidelines, all individual members of the party who are in good standing and reside in B.C. will be given a ballot. Previously, party leaders were selected by delegates at a convention.

"We will have to develop the process around doing mail ballots, or possibly even online," she said. "Those rules and regulations have to be worked out and that will be done by a leadership rules committee."

Ms. O'Brien wouldn't rule out that the NDP will select its full-time leader before the Liberals elect their new chief Feb. 26. "I haven't talked with the executive yet to see what their interest is in doing this quickly. There may be a push to do it before that."

Norman Ruff, professor emeritus at the University of Victoria, said the NDP would be wise to take its time. A delay could come at the party's peril, however, if the new Liberal leader called a quick election.

"You would hit the NDP when they still remain divided," he said. "Someone suggested to me that that wouldn't be fair, but this isn't cricket, this is B.C. politics."

Kennedy Stewart, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University, said the months that follow Ms. James's resignation won't be pretty for a party that's been plagued by infighting.

"I think they're going to go down the rabbit hole," he said.

Prof. Stewart called former health minister Kevin Falcon the frontrunner for the B.C. Liberal leadership. He echoed Prof. Ruff in saying British Columbians likely won't have to wait until 2013 to go to the polls.

"Even if there is a leader chosen by the NDP to go into the election, the factions will still be so divided that they'll really have a tough time fighting the election," he said. "They've really cut off their own head."