Two and a half weeks into the campaign in Quebec, and panic seems to be setting in among PQ strategists. Polls are showing a clear trend toward the provincial Liberals. Worse, the upstart Québec Solidaire, whose leader, Françoise David, performed admirably during the first leader’s debate, is nipping at the heels of the PQ in several urban ridings on the island of Montreal.
The PQ has tried everything, yet nothing seems to be working. Pierre Karl Péladeau has failed to ignite any significant interest on the part of the business community that was supposed to be drawn into the PQ fold by his candidacy. The specter of a referendum has clearly cost the PQ in the polls, to the point where Pauline Marois has rather pathetically been repeatedly seeking to distance herself from what should after all be her party’s most central commitment. The Charter of Values, which was trundled out again toward the middle of the week, seems to have exhausted its electoral potential. We’ve been talking about it for months, after all, and there is little reason to think that voters who, though they support the Charter, do not support the PQ, might be tempted to change their minds about who to vote for at this late date.
The PQ has thus changed tacks again. In recent days, they seem to have moved toward a “try anything and see what sticks to the wall” strategy. Thus, Pauline Marois has been lashing out at Philippe Couillard on the ethics front, though that line of attack may have limited potential for her, given the allegations that have been swirling around her husband, businessman Claude Blanchet. In a strange turn of events, she has taken to remonstrating with Françoise David for criticizing the PQ, and has invited her to join ranks with her in attacking their common enemy, the Liberal Party. (Given the depths to which the PQ has fallen in their attempt to cling to power, criticism of QS which has by and large fought a high road campaign in its attempt to wrest votes from the PQ, is really quite disconcerting). Finally, the PQ has begun to play a version of the “money and ethnics” card by suggesting that massive irregularities have been going on in voter registration, with hundreds of new voters having been registered in ridings such as Saint-Marie-Saint-Jacques, an inner city neighborhood in Montreal which is home to many students from Montreal’s four universities, who may have felt mobilized to exercise their democratic rights by their distaste for the rightward turn that the PQ has taken in its playing of the identity card.
These tactics smack of desperation, and though there are still two weeks left in the campaign, we must now contemplate the possibility that the wheels have completely fallen of the PQ bus. A question which seemed merely theoretical two weeks ago must now be seriously considered: what would happen if the PQ were to lose the election?
I believe that it would lead to a significant realignment of the political landscape in Quebec. There are clearly elements in the PQ that have felt uncomfortable with the Charter, and with the kind of politics that it betokens. They will undoubtedly come out of the woodwork and will confront the party strategists who, whether through opportunism or conviction, decided to reorient the PQ’s politics around the Charter in order to win this election. Having been silenced with the promise that the Charter would bring the PQ one step closer to the promised land, they may now seek to regain control of the Party.
The bloodletting that will ensue will have one of two results. Either the progressive forces that are left in the PQ will drift toward Québec Solidaire, as many erstwhile stalwart supporters of the party have already done. In much the same way that the Parti Québécois emerged in a matter of a few years in the early to mid-1970s from a minor party to a party of government, this might turn QS into a credible political force. The PQ would then complete its “back to the future” transformation into a new version of the Union Nationale.
It is also possible that progressives within the party will rally around the leadership of someone like Véronique Hivon (the impressive junior Minister who expertly stewarded the thorny physician-assisted suicide file in recent years), or of an established figure such as Gilles Duceppe (who, it must be remembered, threw his hat into the ring briefly to lead the PQ in the wake of André Boisclair’s electoral debacle, and who is said still to harbor political ambitions), to try to regain control of the party. “Chartistes” like Bernard Drainville, Louise Mailloux, and others, may feel impelled to form a new political party, in order to channel and give political expression to the voices of intolerance that the PQ has unleashed over the course of the last couple of years.
One way or another, an electoral defeat by the PQ is likely to lead to further splintering of the sovereignist movement. Though that may sound like good news to federalists both inside Quebec and in the ROC, the emergence of a political force even more unabashedly centered around the kind of “identitarian” politics that the Charter has represented would mean that rocky political roads still lie ahead.