Now that Jagmeet Singh has broken a mold in the NDP itself and, more modestly, in federal politics, three questions stand out, begging for answers.
Can he hold the NDP together, long enough for the party to find a clear, strong direction?
Can he win over enough Canadians to become Prime Minister in 2019 or 2023?
Can he strengthen the NDP brand in Canada’s eleven provinces and three territories?
There can be no doubt that the victory that brought this brightly turbaned candidate to the leadership of the federal New Democrat Party represents a significant shift in attitudes within that party and, to a much lesser extent perhaps, in the wider Canadian populace.
There are a number of reasons and implications for this important shift within the NDP. Even before the death of Jack Layton, the party has been constantly hamstrung by an internal tug of war over its identity, its political values and its priorities. Consequently, the party has remained divided, with three or four factions battling for control of its political direction and its strategy.
All of that confusion has led to a desire for change. Three of the competing visions of what the party is supposed to be, represented by the three other main leadership candidates, have now given way to a new leadership which was chosen as representing “none of the above”.
In one fell swoop, those three traditional NDP forces have been overtaken by a new movement. The leader of this new movement brings with him a new image, a new style and generational change. For the foreseeable future, he breathes fresh air into the lungs of a party that has been gasping for political oxygen for too long.
Throughout the leadership contest, there has always been doubt about whether Canada’s third federal party had the gumption to choose Jagmeet Singh, who is so exuberantly different from the traditional leadership personalities in terms of race, culture/religion and political experience.
From that perspective, the NDP is now faced with the challenge of building itself up, rebranding itself, in order to create a viable force for the next federal election. Their task will be to present an electoral force which can impress Canadians from coast to coast to coast. Their hope is that Singh’s youthfulness, charm and political skills set will be powerful enough to usher him into the prime ministerial chair.
That ambitious task and that audacious hope would normally require more than two years of hard work, bearing in mind that the next federal election is expected in 2019. Notwithstanding the fact that Singh’s electoral triumph in just one round of voting has put him on par with Tommy Douglas and Jack Layton, there is one more related challenge to be met head-on.
This extra challenge is as huge as the rewards that it can bring: strengthening the NDP and the NDP brand in Canada’s provinces and federal territories, in order to create a federal ground-swell of electoral support at the federal level. Singh’s “new” or newly energized NDP will have about twenty-four months to make a powerful impact in three or more of the more populous provinces such as Quebec, Ontario, British Colombia, Alberta and Manitoba.
That is quite a tall order, to which Singh seems to have implicitly replied: “Just watch me”. He is already planning a tour of the country to take his message to the masses in the coming days. He is clearly intent on maximizing his winning momentum and the limited time available to him.
Two obstacles lie in his path: the increasingly public emergence of racism and anti-immigrant sentiments in Canada and the urgent but daunting task of uniting the rival forces within the NDP at the provincial and federal levels.
It is therefore be realistic to face up to the facts: Canada may not yet be ready for a coloured Prime Minister and the NDP is not famous for maintaining any image of unity for more than the duration of one election campaign.
But Jagmeet Singh is not easily contained. He broke the NDP mold in terms of race, age and political experience.
For that achievement alone, he has already earned respect and congratulations in many quarters.
Clearly, he still has a lot more to contribute to Canadian politics. Just watch him.