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Former Nova Scotia NDP finance minister Graham Steele expects the party’s road to recovery after an October 2013 defeat to last years.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Nova Scotia's New Democrats face a long road to recovery and the possibility of an internal battle over their future direction following a bruising electoral defeat, party stalwarts say.

Barely four years after it ascended to the upper rungs of power, becoming the first NDP government east of Ontario, the party finds itself trying to understand what went wrong after it fell from a 31-seat majority to third-party status with seven seats. Even Premier Darrell Dexter lost his own seat.

"There's going to be a lot of questions, vigorous debate, maybe even recriminations about the result," said Graham Steele, who served as the NDP's finance minister before quitting politics.

"I expect it to go on for quite some time, not just months, but years."

Steele said the situation facing the NDP is similar to the one that faced the provincial Liberals. That party lost power in 1999 and spent the 14 years since going through leadership changes to rebound to the 33-seat majority government it won last week.

"I think it took them many years to put together an accurate story of what went wrong," Steele said.

"I think the same journey is ahead for the NDP."

David Johnson, a political science professor at Cape Breton University, said the NDP's left wing and ruling moderates are likely to clash. But Johnson said the party can hang on to the fact it was second in the popular vote.

"In this terrible, terrible election, they still have a quarter of the electorate with them," he said. "That bodes well. It's still a good base to begin with."

But Howard Epstein, a former NDP member who didn't run again, said he will fight in an effort to shift the party's focus to investing in education and shoring up locally based businesses.

Epstein said he has already heard from party members who feel the NDP strayed from its roots.

"I anticipate a very serious struggle inside the party of those who remain fans of Darrell's approach and those who think we mistakenly abandoned the NDP brand," Epstein said.

"I wouldn't think this is going to be settled quickly."

He said Dexter adopted a Conservative policy on tax and fighting deficits, accusing the premier of cozying up to big business through loans and subsidies.

A spokeswoman for Dexter said he would be unavailable for comment until after the Thanksgiving weekend.

David Wallbridge, the party president, said members he has spoken with don't see bitter internal divisions on the horizon. He said it's possible that within a few years, some of the NDP's positions — such as providing non-repayable loans to Irving Shipbuilding to help it build the navy's next fleet, will produce a legacy the party can reclaim.

"It's still expected they'll be cutting steel in the shipbuilding contract," he said. "We should continue to take ownership of those things that were the legacy of this government."

One problem that emerged from the election was the party's failure to elect any new, young members to the legislature, said Johnson, adding that he believes the party would be wise to choose a younger leader for what's likely to be a lengthy period of rebuilding.

The average age of the caucus is 55. The youngest member is 43-year-old Dave Wilson, the outgoing health minister.

Steele said trying to encourage young candidates to run again may be one area where he'll remain involved in politics.

"The work that's ahead of us is not to let them become discouraged by what happened on Tuesday night," he said.

Abad Khan, a 30-year-old NDP candidate who ran in the riding of Fairview-Clayton Park in Halifax, said he intends to try again in four years if his spouse agrees.

"I think there will be debates about what went wrong and where do we need to go ... but I don't see this turning into a teardown event," he said.

"In four years time, we'll be back."

The party is planning to hold an executive meeting in November.