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Canada's New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jack Layton and his wife Olivia Chow greet supporters at his federal election night headquarters in Toronto, May 2, 2011.

Mark Blinch/Reuters/Mark Blinch/Reuters

Two months ago, Jack Layton faced questions about the health of his party and his own fitness to campaign. On Tuesday, after one of the greatest electoral turnarounds in Canadian history, he becomes Leader of the Official Opposition.

He will return to Ottawa as the man who vanquished the Bloc Québécois, as the man who claimed a swath of the centre from the once-dominant Liberals.

But now, the man behind one of the most stunning reversals in political fortunes has an even more challenging task ahead of him: transforming a rag-tag bunch of rookie MPs into a voice of opposition against a Conservative majority.

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"Let me tell you this: Spring is here my friends - and a new chapter begins," Mr. Layton told an exuberant crowd of supporters in Toronto late Monday night.

He told Quebeckers the NDP had heard their "message of change and hope."

"You expressed it so clearly we won't be able to forget it."

He also reiterated his message that he would try to make parliament work.

"I've always favoured proposition over opposition," he said. "But we will oppose the government when it's off track.

"I will propose constructive solutions focused on helping Canadians."

Mr. Layton must immediately pull together a team filled with first-time MPs to ensure his party makes good on the gains and steps into a new role: no longer as advocates in Parliament, but as the party that could govern next.

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At 60, just months after a bout with cancer and recovering from a broken hip, Mr. Layton delivered a smiling message for change that galvanized Canadian voters on the left and centre, an orange wave that did not crest until election day.

The New Democrats won 102 seats, a dramatic gain for a party that went into the election with 36 seats.

The Conservatives have won 167 seats, twelve more than the 155 needed to form a majority and 24 more than they started the election with.

"Our job starts tomorrow," Mr. Harper said in his victory speech from Calgary late Monday night. "We will implement what we laid out in the budget, our plan for jobs and growth without raising taxes."

In an historic defeat, the Liberals have won only 34 seats. They held 77 seats before the election. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff lost his Etobicoke-Lakeshore seat to Tory leader Bernard Trottier. In a speech to supporters Monday night he accepted responsibility for the Liberals' poor performance but said he would not step down unless the party told him to.

"Democracy teaches hard lessons," he said. "Leaders have to be big enough also to accept their historic responsibility for historic defeat and I do so."

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In Quebec, a flash-fire of NDP momentum virtually annihilated the Bloc. NDP candidate Hélène Laverdière defeated Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe who announced Monday night that he would step down.

The NDP has secured 58 seats in the province. The party only had one Montreal riding, held by NDP finance critic Tom Mulcair, at the outset of the election.

"The NDP listened and understood your deep desire to do things differently in Ottawa, (to) put workers and their families at the forefront," Mr. Mulcair told an ebullient crowd Monday night.

The NDP also gained support in Ontario, where they've won 22 seats compared to the 17 the party held previously. The party also cracked Liberal strongholds in Toronto. Jack Layton kept his Toronto-Danforth seat and his wife, MP Olivia Chow held onto her seat in Trinity-Spadina.

"I am so proud to be a democrat," she said Monday night. "And of course, I am also so proud of our leader, Jack Layton."

In Atlantic Canada, NDP candidates dislodged Liberals used to fending off Tories in ridings in St. John's and Dartmouth for a total of 6 seats in the region.

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But the so-called 'orange wave' did not make it to the prairies where the NDP lost a seat in Manitoba and was shut out of Saskatchewan again. NDP MP Linda Duncan did hold onto Edmonton-Strathcona but the NDP did not make any gains in Alberta.

The NDP gained support in British Columbia winning 12 seats. It previously held nine. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May won her seat in the province.

"The New Democrats have never had to transition to anything ever before," said Ian Capstick, a former NDP spokesman.

Mr. Layton faces that transformation with a host of new MPs who will face a new scrutiny, a legion of rookies include some who are not just green but accidental MPs - they had run as mere standard-bearers in ridings, especially in Quebec, the NDP never expected to win.

The orange wave that he rode to the Official Opposition relied more on providing a hopeful message to contrast Canadians' frustrations with Ottawa than it did on policy specifics, though he hit hard on basic themes like improving income-supports for seniors, recruiting more family doctors and cutting small-business taxes.

The NDP platform, and estimates of its costs, threatened to trip up his momentum at times: He was accused of underestimating the costs of recruiting 1,200 family doctors, and was forced to concede that the billions of dollars in revenues in the party that were to come from a carbon cap-and-trade system might now arrive for years.

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Mr. Capstick said he expects Mr. Layton, who studied up on agriculture when he moved from municipal politics to the NDP leadership, to try to recruit a new stable of advisers, most notably to improve the party's credibility on fiscal issues, to bolster a staff team that has until now revolved around political strategists and communications advisers.

The new MPs will be given quick warnings to cool their jets before they pronounce on the party's direction, Mr. Capstick said, with the message: "Just wait."

And after the success of his campaign, predicated on a pledge to bring constructive politics to Ottawa, he will face pressure to dodge the rough attack politics that the leader facing the Prime Minister is typically thrust into.

His experience in Toronto's city council - where he learned retail politics and understood that putting forward an offer rings with voters - is likely to lead him to attack with policy proposals that he can cast as a better alternative, Mr. Capstick said.

"He's going to put all the ducks in a row, and then he's going to start proposing things that Mr. Harper has to shut down."

Mr. Layton had been stung in his first election, in 2004, when he doubled the party vote but was squeezed out of big seat gains by the Liberals. But Mr. Layton built a strategy to fend off the squeeze: focusing on winnable seats, building organization and networks, and working on Quebec.

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This time, he was the one squeezing the Liberals, and crushing the Bloc.

But Mr. Layton, who defied typecasting before, will also be moving to corral his newly-swelled party into the centrist, populist brand he sees as its future - one that can continue to dominate the Liberals in the centre of the political spectrum.

Though he won the NDP's leadership as an outsider in 2003 - with a reputation as a bicycle-riding, left-wing municipal politician and the support of just two of the party's more left-leaning MPs - he dropped the party's opposition to things like NATO and insisted it take a more centrist view of fiscal policy, learning from the success of party legend Tommy Douglas's provincial NDP governments.

"He's learned the pragmatism of the Douglases and the Romanows and the Doers, and believes that's the path forward for the federal party," Ottawa New Democrat MP Paul Dewar said Monday. "He's learned you have to take positions, but you don't need to be too ideological about it."

- WIth files from the Canadian Press

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