TORONTO — TRYING to find someone to replace the most popular politician in the country is a tough job, so Canada's New Democratic Party has decided to give itself a little time. The leader of the New Democratic Party, Edward Broadbent, resigned March 4, and the search is on for a replacement. There are so many candidates - and no obvious successor - that the party has rescheduled its August leadership convention for December.
The New Democratic Party (NDP) has never received more than about 20 percent of the vote in a federal election. In recent years, Mr. Broadbent has topped the polls as Canada's most popular political leader, easily outstripping the conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
But translating the leader's popularity into votes has proved elusive for the NDP and Broadbent, who has been leader for almost 14 years and a member of Parliament for more than 20.
The NDP leader could not deliver the votes in last fall's election - especially in French-speaking Quebec, where the party has never won a seat in the federal House of Commons.
Before the fall election, many people - including Broadbent - were predicting that the NDP would replace the Liberals as the official opposition and perhaps even form a minority government. The party had reached 44 percent approval levels in opinion polls last year. But during the election campaign, Liberal leader John Turner stole the NDP's thunder and co-opted the party's anti-free-trade stand.
The New Democratic Party is Canada's socialist party. Most labor unions in Canada tithe a percentage of their membership dues to the NDP.
Although the party leadership is dominated by intellectuals from central Canada - professors such as Broadbent - it is in western Canada that the NDP gets its broadest base of support. There have been NDP provincial governments in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia, but the party has never won any other provincial legislatures.
All Canadian parties aspiring to national office face the political reality of French-speaking Quebec. You can't win national power without it, and you can't win Quebec without a leader who speaks French.
Few candidates for NDP leadership are bilingual, and there's not a French-speaking Quebecker in the lot. Among the promising candidates are Robert Rae, leader of Ontario's New Democrats, who is bilingual enough to have appeared as a commentator on French television the night of the election. Robert White, leader of the Canadian Auto Workers and a Vice-President of the NDP, has been taking French lessons.
In the House of Commons, candidates include Steven Langdon, bilingual and a former professor of political science; Lorne Nystrom, a bilingual member of Parliament from Saskatchewan; Nelson Riis, whose leadership ambitions have driven him to attend a language school in Quebec; and Audrey McLaughlin, a relatively new member of Parliament from the Yukon.
When the New Democrats chose Broadbent as their leader at a 1975 convention, no one could have imagined he would have developed into the popular political figure he is today. The party members now have to make a similarly inspired choice if they are ever to gain national power and cease being the party that never wins.