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OTTAWA (Reuters) - The death of New Democrat leader Jack Layton weakens a parliamentary opposition that already has little power and will leave Prime Minister Stephen Harper unchallenged, at least for now.
But with four years to go before the next scheduled federal election, the three opposition parties have time to regroup and perhaps form new alliances that could rob the Conservatives of their majority position.
All three face leadership races, and the left-leaning NDP, now dominated by parliamentarians from French-speaking Quebec, will have to decide its own focus, and work out if it stays true to Layton's pro-Canada vision of social spending, higher corporate taxes, a carbon tax and a balanced budget.
"There will be those who will try to persuade you to give up our cause," Layton said in a letter to Canadians written two days before he died and published hours afterward. "But that cause is much bigger than any one leader."
Layton, the NDP's popular and charismatic leader, died of cancer on Monday, less than four months after powering the party from the smallest group in the House of Commons to the official opposition, with 103 of 308 total seats.
But the Conservatives' majority in Parliament gives them a free rein to carry out policy until the next federal election in October 2015. Their focus is on curbing spending to balance the budget, and on an anti-crime agenda.
"It strengthens Harper, because he dominates the political landscape now," University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman said of the changing political landscape after Layton's death.
In his letter Layton recommended that the NDP choose a new leader as early as possible next year to give time to build a team, renew the party and prepare for an election.
The Liberals, the previous opposition, will select its new leader in 2013. After that a potential wild card could come into play - the possibility of the NDP and the Liberals trying to form a united left in time for the 2015 election.
Liberal interim leader Bob Rae has said the Liberals had to consider seriously a merger. But his party, reduced to a pale shadow of its former grandeur, is divided on the idea.
Rae said on Monday he would not comment on the political implications of the death of Layton, whose career in politics was marked by a pragmatic readiness to work with anyone.
A united left could avoid the vote splitting that gave the Conservatives many seats in the last election under Canada's first-past-the-post voting system. But some centrist Liberal voters might move to the Conservatives if they felt a new party was too extreme for their taste.
But the NDP faces its own challenges in a leadership race, given that many voters identified strongly with Layton rather than with the party.
Its interim leader, Nycole Turmel, was a member of two separatist Quebec parties before she joined the NDP.
The party had just one seat in Quebec before the election but now holds nearly all of them. Some voters called themselves Jacquistes, a play on his first name, Jack.
"The Conservative government is very good right now at building a national image, by speaking out for Canada as a whole, and it's going to be trying to paint the NDP into a box where they appear to be defending Quebec's interests but not Canadian interests," said Queen's University political scientist Kathy Brock.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren and Julie Gordon; editing by Janet Guttsman