Two days after Jack Layton's state funeral turned into an ode to social democracy and inclusive politics, musings about a merger with the NDP by two former Liberal leaders led to growing calls among current MPs for unity among the opposition to Stephen Harper's Conservatives.
The open discussions of a Liberal-NDP merger or coalition overshadowed the opening moves of the New Democratic leadership race and attempts by interim Liberal leader Bob Rae to galvanize his troops ahead of a politically charged fall sitting of Parliament.
"We have to hold a serious debate on the future of progressive forces in Canada," Liberal MP Denis Coderre said.
On the weekend, former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien said a merger would have helped defeat the Conservatives in the May election, and former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff highlighted the shared values of his party and the NDP.
Mr. Coderre, one of the best-known federal Liberals in Quebec, said negotiations could lead to a new party of Liberal Democrats or a coalition. "We are currently divided, and we have to look at all of the options," he said.
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau said he is not convinced of the benefits of a merger, but added he could change his mind.
"It's nice to blue-sky about different ideas when you're in a time of transition, a time of change," he said.
Liberals held a caucus meeting in Ottawa on Monday at which current MPs and defeated candidates licked their wounds from the May 2 election debacle. Mr. Rae and a majority of Liberal MPs shot down talk of a merger or a coalition as a waste of time, even as they acknowledged that they face a tough road back to government.
"People are free to talk about whatever they want to talk about, but it's not on my agenda at the moment. I think we really have to focus on the Liberal Party," Mr. Rae said.
The NDP's Brad Lavigne, a senior adviser to interim leader Nycole Turmel, said the party is focusing on fulfilling its duties as the Official Opposition for the first time in its history.
"Right now, the focus is on strengthening the New Democratic Party through a renewal leadership process and by rallying the parliamentary caucus around a strong fall session to hold the Harper government to account," Mr. Lavigne said.
Still, the idea has attracted the backing of former NDP leader Ed Broadbent as well as Mr. Chrétien, who, according to a Quebec columnist, boasted on a return flight from Mr. Layton's funeral that his plans for a Liberal-NDP merger would have stopped the Conservatives from taking power this year.
Meanwhile, former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said on his Facebook page that Liberals and New Democrats all care about generosity, justice and hope, adding it was a pleasure to "imagine what the future of our country might look like if we put those values first."
The NDP's federal council will set the rules for the contest at a meeting in Ottawa on Sept. 9, choosing a location and a date early in 2012 in which the NDP will select its new leader on the basis of one member, one vote.
So far, NDP president Brian Topp is the most prominent potential candidate, with a long history in the party, the union movement and provincial NDP governments. In an e-mail, Mr. Topp said he will not be involved in determining the leadership rules and will step aside from his position within the party if he runs.
"In the event I were to become involved in the leadership race it would then also be appropriate for me to take a leave from my duties as president. I well understand that this can't remain an open question for too very long," Mr. Topp said.
Other potential leadership candidates within the NDP caucus are Mr. Layton's long-time partner, Olivia Chow, as well Paul Dewar of Ottawa, Joe Comartin of Windsor and Megan Leslie of Halifax.
The NDP leadership race could last only four months, which party insiders said could hurt the candidacies of caucus members who will have to spend significant time in the House of Commons in coming months.
For example, there is much talk in the party that House Leader and Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair could mount a strong bid, but he is not as well known outside his home province and could benefit from a longer period to meet NDP members. Still, Mr. Mulcair has the advantage among caucus members of having experience in government as a former Liberal minister in Quebec City.
Given that 59 of the 103 NDP seats are in Quebec, provincial concerns will be top-of-mind during the race. MP Guy Caron, who is the chair of the NDP's Quebec caucus, said he will support a leadership candidate who is bilingual and charismatic, who understands Quebec's political culture and who shares Mr. Layton's vision for the party and his ability to unite Canadians.
Like Mr. Caron, NDP MP Pat Martin refused to come down in favour of a specific candidate. Still, Mr. Martin said the party must quickly find a new leader, after a week dedicated to honouring Mr. Layton's legacy.
"It would be irresponsible for us to wait any longer," Mr. Martin said.
The Liberals, meanwhile, are trying to maximize the influence of their 34 MPs in Ottawa. In a well-received speech to caucus, staff and defeated candidates, Mr. Rae said the party will focus in coming years on "jobs, jobs, jobs."
He said the Liberals will not be bullied by the Conservatives, and that his party will mount a strong and constant opposition to Mr. Harper.
"We will fight his government every step of the way," Mr. Rae said.