WINNIPEG - Greg Selinger has been picked as Manitoba's next premier.
The long-serving former finance minister was chosen Saturday by about 2,000 delegates at the provincial NDP's leadership convention to replace Gary Doer, who stepped down to become Canada's new ambassador to the United States.
Selinger, 58, beat out rival Steve Ashton by 1,317 votes.
His leadership bid was backed by virtually all his cabinet colleagues, as well as by union leaders.
He has promised little change from centrist policies that have kept the Manitoba NDP high in opinion polls for the last decade.
"Our government has turned this province around," Selinger told the 1,994 voting delegates before the results were announced.
"We have made real progress but we can't take anything for granted. Not even for a minute."
Selinger, a former inner-city activist who studied at the London School of Economics and served on Winnipeg city council, will have up to two years in the premier's office before facing voters. The next general election is set for the fall of 2011 under Manitoba's fixed election-date law.
Selinger was the favourite to win. Ashton was the self-described underdog who started his campaign with the support of only a few NDP backbenchers.
The convention floor reflected his popularity with roughly two-thirds of the room decked out in bright orange Selinger T-shirts.
During his time as finance minister, Selinger developed a reputation as a centrist by balancing personal and business tax cuts with new spending in areas such as health and education.
He promoted himself as a steady hand to guide the province through uncertain economic times and said there would be no major changes in direction under his watch. Most of his promises during the leadership campaign were to expand existing programs for students, immigrants and businesses.
Although the global economy "went bust" a year ago, Selinger said Manitoba has emerged relatively unscathed.
"This is in part because of the firm economic foundation we have built together in this province," Selinger said. "We will continue to make the interests of Manitoba families the central concern of our government. We need to keep people working."
Selinger said the party is united, despite a leadership race which pitted his centrist approach with Ashton.
Ashton was viewed as more left-leaning and his critics questioned whether he would scare off many of the suburban voters that have supported the NDP through three successive majority governments.
During the campaign he promised to reinstitute a tuition freeze and impose a ban on replacement workers during a strike, an idea which has been long resisted by the Doer government.
"Some people think with Gary's departure, we are divided," Selinger said. "They are hoping we will not work together. I know I speak for everyone in this room when I say, they could not be more wrong."
But some political observers say Selinger will have a challenge ahead keeping the left wing of the party, who supported Ashton, in the fold. Richard Sigurdson, dean of arts at the University of Manitoba, said Doer kept the party united, largely on the strength of his personality.
"Because (Doer) was successful, and therefore could offer, benefits to people that followed his will, he could hold in line the more ideological branches within the NDP," said Sigurdson. "I think that is going to be more of a challenge for (Selinger)."
The leadership race was originally a three-way affair. But Andrew Swan, a younger cabinet minister, dropped out after securing only a small number of delegates halfway through the race. He threw his support behind Selinger, as did most of his high-profile cabinet supporters.