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Mulcair chosen to succeed Jack Layton as leader of federal NDP

New Democrats opted Saturday for a rhetorical spear carrier over an ideological puritan, selecting mercurial Thomas Mulcair to carry the official Opposition into electoral battle against Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

Mulcair, a combative former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister, won the NDP leadership on a fourth ballot, besting longtime party strategist Brian Topp in a contest that severely strained the party’s self-styled tolerance.

A perceived centrist who was once wooed by Harper’s Tories, Mulcair overcame loud complaints that he would abandon social democratic principles in the pursuit of power — a federal pursuit that New Democrats can now truly taste for the first time in their 50-year history.

In the end, a party now dominated by its come-lately orange wave in Quebec went with its star candidate in that province to replace the late Jack Layton, whose sudden death from cancer last August staggered New Democrats just weeks after their spring electoral breakthrough.

Mulcair claimed 57.2 per cent of the vote in the final, head-to-head showdown with Topp on Saturday’s fourth and final ballot.

Mulcair assumes the role of leader of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition when the House of Commons resumes Monday after a one-week break.

The experienced legislative sparring partner was the candidate most New Democrats conceded was best prepared to hit the ring swinging. He’ll be put immediately to the test when the Conservatives bring down their first budget as a majority government this Thursday.

“Thomas is fearless, Thomas is organized,” NDP MP Charlie Angus said Saturday after his first choice, Paul Dewar, dropped out following the first ballot. “He’s one of the strongest MPs we’ve seen in the House of Commons and he’s certainly a match for Stephen Harper.”

Topp, a close Layton confidant and the first candidate to enter the race just three weeks after his death, fell 8,542 votes short on the final ballot against Mulcair.

He vowed to work with the new leader in a united front against the Conservatives.

Topp had earlier defended his decision to force the final ballot, rather than concede, even after it was clear he could not win.

“I think it’s fit and proper to let the party decide who the leader is and to not have the appearance that it was arranged,” said Topp.

Dark-horse contender Nathan Cullen, written off at the start of the race last fall after proposing co-operation with the Liberals, made it to the final three and cemented his role as a rising star in the party.

Cullen said his strong showing in the contest proves there’s an appetite for co-operating with Liberals.

“Change is in the wind, my friend,” he said. “I think anybody who (thought) New Democrats aren’t open to the ideas of change was obviously mistaken.”

Peggy Nash was eliminated following Saturday’s second ballot, while Paul Dewar, Martin Singh and Niki Ashton all dropped out after the morning’s initial vote.

Mulcair, Cullen, Nash and Dewar are among the NDP’s best parliamentary performers and their long absences on the leadership campaign trail have not helped the official Opposition consolidate its role.

Their return next week should reinvigorate a Commons already boiling with political controversy over allegations of election fraud and the prospect of a ground-shifting federal budget.

The NDP’s weekend leadership showcase, however, was drained of much of its excitement and vigour Saturday by a series of technical delays with the online voting system — although the source of the delay did add a minor element of intrigue.

Party president Rebecca Blaikie confirmed two IP addresses had been isolated as the source of cyber-attacks that appeared designed to slow entry into the system, effectively gumming up the works but not impairing the vote.

“Whoever this is or whatever it came from, their goal was simply to make it a pain to get into our site, to make it harder for people to vote, to block it up with a lot of traffic,” Blaikie said.

Whatever the cause, Mulcair’s victory wasn’t confirmed until late Saturday evening — timing the party had scrupulously planned to avoid.

That wasn’t the only come-down for New Democrats.

The day’s biggest ballot topped out at 65,108 voters, a less than 50 per cent turnout from a party membership that swelled to over 131,000 during the leadership campaign.

About 56,000 people had voted in advance of the convention.

Under the preferential ballot system, in which voters ranked their choices first to last, those 56,000 votes were locked in for all subsequent ballots and couldn’t be influenced by floor-crossing endorsements.

None of the vanquished candidates except Singh — who, as expected, went with Mulcair — chose to publicly endorse another contender.

As it transpired, key endorsements weren’t required.

Mulcair’s high profile in Quebec helped him maintain his status as the candidate to beat. Once a western-based protest party, the NDP’s world has revolved around Quebec since last May’s election, when an unexpected Layton-led wave swept the province and vaulted the party into official Opposition status for the first time in its 50-year history.

As the lone Quebec MP in the hunt, Mulcair made a powerful case as the standard-bearer for a party in which 58 of its current 102 seats came from his home province. Mulcair was the lone New Democrat among those 58 Quebec MPs who held his seat before last May’s federal election.

He has also caused divisions, however, among social democrats who believe he’ll turn the party into a pale imitation of the more centrist Liberals.

Elder party statesman Ed Broadbent lambasted Mulcair as temperamentally ill-suited to leadership in an extraordinary public broadside just two weeks before the convention. Jack Layton’s mother Doris endorsed Topp in the final week.

None of it could stop Mulcair.

To watch raw video of speeches at the NDP convention, click here.