After Andre Boisclair, who ? And if not Gilles Duceppe now, when ?
Perhaps, like Jean Charest in 1998, Duceppe will have no alternative but to cross the Ottawa River this time, and assume the leadership of a party with no other obvious choice.
But Duceppe might already have missed his best chance when the Parti Quebecois leadership came open in 2005. Declining to cross the river then, he said, "My duty is here." In Ottawa, as leader of the Bloc Quebecois, in what was also a minority House that could be dissolved at any time. As the Quebec House could be now.
He wasn’t saying that yesterday. He wasn’t saying anything, except that that it was Andre Boisclair’s day, and that he wanted "to pay homage to him."
That got Duceppe through yesterday, but today he has a caucus of 50 members to face, and they will be curious about his intentions. They have a right to know, if not today then soon, whether he intends to lead them in the next federal election, whenever that might be.
After all, it isn’t just the leadership of the PQ that’s open, it’s the future of the Bloc that’s in question. What would become of the Bloc ? What would the opportunity be for the federalist parties to occupy its space ?
Political parties don’t detest vacuums, they fill them. The Bloc is already losing altitude. Duceppe’s departure could send it into a free fall. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are already the Bloc’s main rival in the crucial battleground of 50 seats off the island of Montreal. But the decline of the Bloc would also present a growth opportunity for the Liberals in the Montreal region, and for the NDP among left-leaning Bloc voters.
And how would the Bloc itself fill a leadership vacuum ? It is far from clear. This is not a party with a line of successors standing in the wings. For the last decade, Duceppe and his House leader Michel Gauthier have been the Bloc’s dominant figures in the House, and Gauthier is quitting at the end of this session next month. It’s not even clear what kind of succession process the Bloc would follow.
And why, as well established as he is in Ottawa, would Duceppe even consider leaving the federal scene to become leader of the third party in Quebec ?
Why, indeed ?
Well, because it’s there. Because it’s the headquarters of the sovereignty movement, and as leader of the PQ, Duceppe would be in command of those forces both in Quebec City and in Ottawa.
Then, the Bloc is a franchise in decline, while the PQ might well have bottomed out in the March election. In those terms, there might an opportunity to re-build.
The two-year timeline to a PQ leadership review has been overtaken by this week’s sudden departure of Boisclair, precipitated by his interview with Radio-Canada, in which he declared war on Duceppe and advised him to stay in Ottawa where he belonged.
This was the tipping point in a turbulent leadership marked by bad judgment calls.
Now the PQ can move to a leadership vote in the fall, which could considerably shorten the life of the minority legislature that convened in Quebec City yesterday.
Assuming Duceppe can keep other aspirants out of the race, he could be in the National Assembly before year’s end.
But being leader of the PQ in Quebec is a very different proposition from being leader of the Bloc in Ottawa.
The Bloc is disciplined, while the PQ is incorrigible. The Bloc follows its leaders, while the PQ devours them. The Bloc supports sovereignty, while the PQ proposes it. The Bloc enjoys a free ride, while the PQ bears the consequences of its program at the polls.
Sovereignty at the federal level ? It doesn’t cost anything because it will never happen, except perhaps as a winning condition for another referendum.
And that would be 50 per cent of the vote, a number Duceppe went for and missed in the last federal election.
Since then, the Bloc has fallen significantly in the polls, and has been outflanked by Stephen Harper on one Quebec issue after another.
So if Duceppe missed a rendez-vous with destiny the last time, another opportunity might have presented itself.
There’s only one way to find out. In that sense, he has no choice. He must cross the river.