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The NDP can use this unwelcome opportunity to galvanize support

Interim New Democratic Party leader Nycole Turmel is silhouetted against a television light during a news conference in Ottawa on Aug. 23, 2011.


Nycole Turmel has, by her own admission, the most difficult job in Canadian politics, leading a New Democratic Party without Jack Layton.

But that party faces an impossibly difficult challenge of its own: to find a leader and to craft values-based policies that will resonate with the Quebeckers who sent 59 New Democrats to Ottawa, with Canadians outside Quebec who have traditionally supported the party, and with everyone seeking a progressive alternative to the dominant political narrative of Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

With that challenge comes opportunity: to galvanize support for the party that currently has the best shot at defeating the Conservatives and to open it to new voices and new supporters.

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If, that is, party leaders are willing to take the risk.

Ms. Turmel was candid when she spoke to reporters in the foyer of Parliament on Tuesday.

"Let's be clear: We will not replace Jack Layton," she said. But "we have the obligation to continue the work. That's what he gave us as his legacy."

She will continue to lead the party when Parliament returns on Sept. 19, and said the NDP will respect Mr. Layton's wish expressed in a letter he wrote just before his death that it choose a new leader as soon as possible in the new year.

But is that too soon to pick the right leader for the job?

For better or worse – almost certainly, for worse – leaders personify their parties more than ever before. And as the Liberals have taken to doing, a leader whose personality and message do not immediately connect with voters is often quickly dispensed with.

But Roy Romanow warns that obsessing over who can best deliver a winning message is the worst approach the party could take.

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"Personality is important," he said in an interview. But "the issue is locating and determining the changing currents of the values of the country, and the policies that flow from that.

"And I don't think that the age or the face or the gender of the leader is necessarily a factor."

A majority of Canadians did not, and never do, vote Conservative. Both the NDP and the Liberals are seeking to channel that resistance to Mr. Harper.

Pitfalls and potential are especially acute for the NDP. The party was the beneficiary of a political about-face among Quebec voters last May. But was it a vote for NDP values? Or was it a vote for Mr. Layton himself? How does the party marry that French Canadian restlessness to its traditional base of support in Atlantic Canada, Ontario and the West? And how can it then win government?

The answer must be to find a leader who reflects the values of a Canada that is evolving – multicultural, fiscally conservative and prosperous – but worried about what lies ahead.

Something else: Although there was a slight uptick on May 2, voter participation in federal elections has been declining for decades. Younger Canadians, in particular, appear disengaged from politics, especially federal politics.

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But as Barack Obama demonstrated in the United States in 2008, if a leader can reach beyond a political party's existing base of support with a message that resonates with the values and aspirations of those who usually don't vote, anything becomes possible.

In witnessing the national mourning for Mr. Layton, "we realized that we were looking to him to be the voice of millions and millions of Canadians" who don't see their values reflected within the Conservative government, said Jamie Biggar of Leadnow, a new social advocacy group that seeks to use social media to generate support for progressive political change.

With both the Liberals and the NDP in search of new leaders, "there is huge interest in who is going to provide that voice," he said in an interview.

But to engage the entire non-Conservative community, the party must open the leadership contest and the debate surrounding it to a far broader group than the comparatively few who are card-carrying members of the NDP.

So the party has a choice. It can conduct a traditional leadership campaign, in which candidates seek the support of the existing members. Figures such as Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair and party president Brian Topp, another name on people's lips, might win the prize via that conventional route.

Or it can use this unwelcome opportunity to mobilize a new and broader base of support. But to do that, the NDP must open the party, and the contest, to everyone who wants to be a part of it.

The party leadership should take all the time it needs to get this right.

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