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Newly-elected NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair (centre) is flanked by former interim leader Nycole Turmel and former deputy leader Libby Davies (right) as he receives applause at a party caucus meeting in Toronto on Sunday, March 25, 2012.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press/Chris Young/The Canadian Press

With the election of Thomas Mulcair as leader, the pragmatism of a plurality of New Democrats has triumphed. Mr. Mulcair represents the most effective opponent to Stephen Harper and the party's best chance to win an election.

The New Democrats need him for Quebec especially, where his leadership could solidify the breakthrough made in the last election. He's also the one who espouses cutting certain NDP mantras adrift, and represents the sort of political moderation that could appeal beyond the party's traditional support.

The shift to the centre is the greatest challenge for Mr. Mulcair. To a larger extent than with the other major parties, the NDP base is ideological (they prefer to use words like conviction and principle).

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The NDP's precursor, the CCF, called for the end of capitalism. Such radical ideas have been softened over the years, and NDP provincial governments have generally been fiscally prudent. Even so, the intervention of former leader Ed Broadbent in the last week of the campaign in a vain attempt to stop Mr. Mulcair (in fact he probably helped him) is a measure of the discomfort some New Democrats feel toward his centrist policies.

Mr. Mulcair emphasized continuity on Sunday, reaching out to the party establishment, and seeking to calm fears. He deserves credit for running a positive campaign, and for embracing his opponents. Canada needs that sort of politics, not the puerile bullying that the Conservatives showed in attacking Mr. Mulcair just minutes after his victory.

He will need to move cautiously in order to avoid a splinter on the party's left, but he must not be stymied by it. The greater risk would be to not do enough to dispel the notion that the New Democrats are a party of the left, one beholden to organized labour, and that Mr. Mulcair is as the Tories would have him, a leftist outside the political mainstream.

That is not the case, but it is the case that organized labour plays too prominent a role in the party, and that is has long been out of step with voters, federally. Mr. Mulcair needs to open the party up to other voices if it is to truly occupy more of the political centre.

There are other unknowns. Whether Mr. Mulcair is a hothead, and unpredictable, as his critics suggest. Whether, after two flat speeches at the leadership convention, he can stir interest outside the party.

He will be tested early, by the Air Canada labour situation, and by the budget. We will soon learn if Mulcair rhymes with Blair, or something else, when it comes to spending and civil service cuts. From now on, everyone should pay close attention to his every word and idea.

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