Marois's challenges

In downplaying sovereignty, PQ platform has become very similar to the Liberals'

Élection Québec - le 8 décembre 2008 - les souverainistes en campagne

After André Boisclair, Pauline Marois was seen by Péquistes as almost a saviour when she became their uncontested leader. But if she fails to win this election, they could start singing a different tune.
At mid-campaign, this week's Léger Marketing poll put the Parti Québécois at only 33 per cent, the Liberals at 44 per cent and the Action démocratique at 15 per cent. The PQ still has a slight lead among francophones, but these numbers mirror almost perfectly those of the 2003 election that lead to a majority Liberal government, a PQ official opposition and left the ADQ in third-party status.
Jean Charest is certainly benefiting from the extreme make-over he underwent over the past year as well as from catching the PQ by surprise when he called an election right after the federal one. The electorate's initial anger at Charest's gamble, now morphed into indifference, also helps the Liberals breeze through a campaign many voters aren't paying attention to.

But Marois also made some choices when she became leader that have kept her party from getting more support. More than her decision to shelve the referendum option, her decision to not actively promote sovereignty might have seemed like a pragmatic choice, but it failed to mobilize her troops.
As for the rest of the electorate, getting rid of its main trademark turned the PQ into a walking paradox: a sovereignist party with an autonomist platform. The last time this happened was under Pierre Marc Johnson. And it was a failure. In turning autonomist at a time when Charest is pumping up his own nationalist muscles, the PQ became one nationalist party among three, one which is only slightly more demanding toward Ottawa.
Case in point: Yesterday, Marois proposed to patriate all powers related to culture and communications, which was what Robert Bourassa called "cultural sovereignty." Then debating different shades of autonomy, PQ MNA Pierre Curzi accused Charest of not asking for this cultural sovereignty. As for her promise to beef up Bill 101, Marois said she wouldn't adopt coercive measures.
Result: While the ADQ remains firmly on the right, the PQ's more autonomist approach combined with a more centrist socio-economic vision has produced a PQ platform which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Liberal plank. To use a popular expression, with the Liberals already in power anyway, why then would voters want to change a loonie for four quarters?
Coming up with a gentler, pale- blue ad campaign and playing the "I-want-to-be-the-first-female-premier" card hasn't worked, either. With the Léger poll showing that 92 per cent of respondents are ready for a female premier, Marois's gender ended up not being much of an issue.
Marois didn't help her party's case either when she said she'd throw some doctors and nurses into early retirement again if she faced similar financial circumstances. She's now trying, instead, to call Charest on his own six-year record on health care. But her inability to recognize that these early retirements were a mistake - even Lucien Bouchard did later - isn't helping the PQ much. With the reality being that both Bouchard and Charest have a shared responsibility for the current state of the health-care system, Marois missed the chance to break with the Bouchard era on a central issue most Quebecers are still angry about.
Given these choices, poll numbers resembling those of 2003 and Charest's well-oiled campaign, next Tuesday's leaders' debate will be crucial for the PQ leader. With many voters finally paying some attention, this will be Marois's chance to turn things around. After all, there have been debates where premiers lost the election on that very night. It happened to Bernard Landry in 2003.
But if a third Liberal mandate appears inescapable after the debate, Marois might have to resort to adopting the Bloc's line against Stephen Harper: Vote PQ to block a Charest majority. Unless she gets lucky and Charest ends up being blamed for the Caisse de dépôt's troubles.

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