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New Democrats have elected a leader who promises to take the party further into the terrain that was once the domain of Liberals to bolster the chances of unseating the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Thomas Mulcair, the former provincial Liberal in Quebec who helped deliver his province to the NDP in the last election, emerged the victor in the leadership race after four long ballots and seven months of campaigning. The party immediately handed him the keys to Stornoway, the residence of the Leader of the Official Opposition.

The final vote was a showdown between Mr. Mulcair and Brian Topp, the former party leader who was supported by many of the people closest to former leader Jack Layton, in part to stop Mr. Mulcair's bid for the top job.

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In the end, Mr. Mulcair took 57 per cent of the vote to defeat his last standing rival.

British Columbia MP Nathan Cullen surged in recent weeks to place third. Peggy Nash, a Toronto MP, was fourth. All of the other candidates – Niki Ashton, Martin Singh, and Paul Dewar – dropped out after the first votes were counted.

Mr. Mulcair's supporters were miffed that Mr. Topp did not concede after the third ballot in the name of party unity. But Mr. Topp's people countered that the race was not over until it was over.

The question now becomes whether Mr. Mulcair will seek to heal the rifts that have developed over the course of the leadership race or punish those who did not support him?

Mr. Topp does not have a seat in the House but key staff in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition have been his backers.

Mr. Cullen, on the other hand, has often been described as someone who, like Mr. Mulcair, is looking to take the party in new directions. He might make a good deputy leader. But the New Democrats have a strong tradition of naming a member of the opposite sex as second-in-command.

In Mr. Mulcair, the NDP has a leader who is a polarizing figure.

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His hot temper and his occasional petulance is the antithesis to the perpetually sunny outlook exuded by Mr. Layton. He is mistrusted by some as a newcomer with Liberal roots who want to move the party to the centre. Former leader Ed Broadbent has questioned his leadership skills and his ability to hold the party together.

On the other hand, he is regarded as the candidate who can best speak to Quebeckers and hold on to the seats that are now in peril with the resurgence of the Bloc Québécois. And he is the person that many New Democrats said they could most easily picture going toe to toe against Mr. Harper.

Mr. Mulcair's win was determined through a complicated voting procedure that allowed people to vote in person or at home, and in real time or in advance. It was marred by repeated computer glitches that saw the process drag on until after 9 p.m. But Mr. Mulcair was out front from the start and stayed there.

The New Democrats spent much time congratulating themselves this weekend for the growth they experienced under Mr. Layton. There were 131,152 people eligible to mark ballots in this race – a record for party memberships.

But the turnout hovered at or below 65,000, depending on the ballot. In fact, the number of people who actually participated in the election was not much higher than in 2003 when Mr. Layton became leader.

Which means Mr. Mulcair much work ahead of him to build support for the party and to shore up the support that was demonstrated in the last election.

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