Canadian New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, who led his pro-labor party to its best election result ever in May, said he will take a “temporary” leave of absence after doctors discovered he has a second form of cancer.
Layton recommended NDP lawmaker Nycole Turmel, former head of the country’s largest public sector union, to be interim leader of the party, speaking at a press conference in Toronto. Party executives will announce their selection after a meeting Thursday.
“I am going to follow the advice of my doctors by focusing totally on my treatment,” Layton said. “I will beat this new cancer and I will be back in the House of Commons,” he said, adding he expects to be back when Parliament returns from its summer break Sept. 19.
Layton’s New Democrats won 103 of 308 seats in the House of Commons in the May 2 campaign, allowing it to replace the Liberals as the country’s largest opposition party, largely on the back of a surge in popularity for Layton, particularly in Quebec. His departure raises the possibility the NDP could erupt into infighting over succession, said Darrell Bricker, a Toronto-based pollster.
“It’s obviously going to be a huge problem because it’s not like there’s a plan B in place,” said Bricker, chief executive of Ipsos Public Affairs Worldwide. “There is a lot of potential for disunity in the party as a result of this.”
During his reign as NDP leader, which began in 2003, Layton sought to deflect criticism the party was not fit to govern because its positions would undermine the economy ranked 9th largest by the International Monetary Fund. In an April 29 interview with Bloomberg, Layton said his economic plan would cut the country’s deficit as quickly as the ruling Conservatives and create more jobs.
In a poll by Nanos Research taken just after the election, Layton was considered more trustworthy than any other federal leader.
“There are some real implications here, because the NDP just had this huge surge, this rather strange new parliamentary caucus, and what brought it together was Jack Layton,” said Jonathan Malloy, a political science professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. “The party really is associated with his personal leadership and style.”
Layton announced last year that he was fighting prostate cancer. While dogged by questions about his health during the election campaign, Layton touted himself as a “fighter” in his speeches, regularly drawing cheers on the campaign trail by waving the cane he was using in his recovery.
“If he is not able to return, the new leader is going to have to assume a steady-as-she-goes agenda and that means a more pragmatic agenda that is catered to Quebec,” said Kathy Brock, a political scientist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper, in power since 2006 without control of the legislature, won a majority of seats in Parliament for the first time in the May election.
Layton didn’t say today what type of new cancer he has.
Party President Brian Topp told reporters NDP lawmakers will meet Wednesday and the party’s executive will meet Thursday before naming an interim leader.
Layton’s nominee for interim leader, Turmel, has held labor positions at the local, regional and national levels since 1979, most recently as president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
Before parliament broke for a summer recess in June, Layton and Harper clashed over the Conservative Party’s efforts to end work stoppages by postal workers and employees at Air Canada.