TORONTO (AP) – Canada’s opposition New Democratic Party elected Thomas Mulcair as their leader Saturday, months after the country mourned the loss of their previous chief to cancer.
The NDP, a union-backed party with socialist roots, took Canadians by surprise in the federal election last May by winning official opposition status for the first time in its 50-year history. Most credited previous leader Jack Layton’s charisma and his popularity in the French-speaking province of Quebec.
Layton died months later in August.
While Mulcair, 57, had been favored to replace Layton, his mercurial personality alienated some party stalwarts.
Challenger Brian Topp warned Mulcair would turn the party into a pale imitation of the more centrist Liberals in a bid to topple Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives at the next election.
Mulcair said he would work to unite progressive forces in Canada.
“I want to move the center to us. I want us to be the rallying point for all the progressive forces in Canada. I want them to unite around the NDP banner,” Mulcair told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
He ruled out merging with the Liberals, saying “it’s absolutely not in the cards.”
Mulcair, born to an Irish-Canadian father and a French-Canadian mother, has been credited in helping the NDP go from one seat in Quebec to 58. He had held the lone NDP seat before the May 2 election.
Nicknamed the grizzly bear, Mulcair was a combative cabinet minister in Quebec’s provincial Liberal party, who surprised some by joining the NDP in 2007.
The NDP won 103 seats in last spring’s election, up from 37 in the previous election. The Liberals, who ruled Canada for much of the last century, slipped to third party status as Harper Conservatives won a five year mandate by winning the majority of Parliament’s 308 seats.