OTTAWA -- The number of NDP members has increased by more than 50 per cent in the past few months, a sign that interest is rising as the party approaches its leadership vote next month.
In all, there are 128,351 members voting for the party's new leader, up from 83,824 back in October.
The climbing numbers are staggering in Quebec, which went from a little more than 1,600 members in October to more than 12,000 by February, surpassing all but Ontario and British Columbia in total membership numbers.
The four-month increase in Quebec represents a whopping growth of 750 per cent.
With British Columbia and Ontario leading the way with members by volume, at 38,735 and 36,750 members respectively, Quebec may not even be the battleground that will determine the next leader, said David McGrane, an expert on the party from the University of Saskatchewan.
While leadership candidates have put a focus on French-language skills, including critiques of Ottawa NDP MP Paul Dewar's performance at a leadership debate in Quebec City, those skills "might not be all that important," said McGrane.
"It appears the race will not be won in Quebec," he said. "This thing appears to be coming down to the wire."
The number of votes available to candidates in Quebec may not be enough to win the leadership -- that would require about 64,176 for a 50 per cent plus one margin of support -- but Quebec cannot be discounted when the voting takes place, said Kathy Brock, an expert on political parties from Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.
Electing a leader who doesn't speak well to Quebec could ruin support gained in the so-called "Orange Wave" that vaulted the NDP into official Opposition status in the election last May, Brock said.
"They do not want to do anything to imperil those votes," she said. "This puts the NDP in a very tricky position because if they go with someone other than (Quebec MP Thomas) Mulcair or (longtime party organizer Brian) Topp, they could see a backlash in Quebec."
The membership numbers in Quebec -- 12,266, or about 10 per cent of the total voting membership -- may show the party is already losing momentum in the province, McGrane said.
The numbers could also suggest Mulcair is not the frontrunner in the race, he said.
Internal party polls released earlier this month suggest Mulcair is in the lead, although there are differences about his level of support.
The NDP has taken the numbers as welcome news for the party, calling the figures "historic."
McGrane said the numbers also show the race for the leader is not in the least boring for the average member, who is making a historic choice.
"What you're choosing this time is a prime minister in waiting. This is the first time they've ever had to choose a prime minister in waiting. That's exciting," McGrane said.
The vote will take place March 24 in Toronto.
Seven candidates are vying to replace the late Jack Layton as leader: Topp, Mulcair, Dewar and fellow MPs Peggy Nash, Nathan Cullen, Niki Ashton and Nova Scotia businessman Martin Singh.
-- Postmedia News
Orange wave continues
The latest NDP membership numbers:
Place February 2012 October 2011
Alta. 10,249 9,033
B.C. 38,735 30,000
Man. 12,056 10,307
N.B. 955 Unavailable
N.L. 1,030 200
N.S. 3,844 1,300
Ont. 36,760 22,225
P.E.I. 268 135
Que. 12,266 1,695
Sask. 11,264 8,929
N.W.T., 924 Unavailable
-- Postmedia News