Selling of memberships, not ideas, counted in leadership race
In yesterday's La Presse, Denis Lessard wrote that a "lack of instinct" is what did in Pauline Marois. Facing the more cunning Bernard Landry and Andre Boisclair, she just wasn't a good strategist.
The proof, he wrote, is that from her first leadership race in 1985 to her second one in 2005, her support in the Parti Quebecois only went up from 20 per cent to 30 per cent. Thus her tragedy was an inability "to convince her party that she could lead the troops."
Although many share that impression, her story is complex and deserves more than a quick diagnosis of strategical ineptitude. If the two races had been held under simular rules, and her rivalry with Landry hadn't cost her so much in the interim, Lessard's assessment would stand on firmer ground.
But the rules of those races were so different that it's hard to compare the results. The 1985 race was a classic leadership convention in which party delegates voted and could be influenced by the quality of the candidates' speeches and ideas.
For a young woman elected just four years earlier and facing such PQ stars as Jean Garon, Marois placed a surprising second.
But in 2005, there was no convention and delegates, with the sort of surprise alliances and shifting votes they can produce. Instead, the party's hierarchy chose to let all party members vote by phone and make their choices in order of preference before the convention.
At first glance, the process looked democratic because all members got to vote. But it turned a campaign that should have been based on ideas into a membership-card selling contest.
In a party that had a dramatically low membership of about 50,000 before the race, the candidate with the most effective card- selling machine was destined to win.
That's not to say that Boisclair lacked leadership qualities, or that Marois had them all, but Boisclair's team racked up those cards, mostly selling his youth factor in CEGEPs, universities and high schools (voting age was 16 and up).
And when the cocaine story hit the campaign like a snow storm, it pretty much eclipsed everything else for a number of weeks.
You could say that Marois's team had only to sell more memberships. But is that really what good strategy is supposed to come down to when a party picks its leader?
Yesterday, in a television interview, I asked former PQ minister Lise Payette what she thought of those new rules. She answered: "I think the method used by the PQ was questionable as far as democracy is concerned."
But it was also one way for the party to control events, she added. That control might also have something to do with the real obstacle Marois had to deal with: The former leader's determination that she wouldn't get to lead the PQ.
The story of the rivalry between Marois and Landry is long and painful. In 2001, after Lucien Bouchard left, Landry persuaded Francois Legault to break his promise to Marois to support her in a leadership race. She felt so betrayed that she chose not to run.
In 2002, the "Oxygene 9" affair left more scars. Marois had made sure that Landry would oust some of his closest allies, including the party's director-general, who had links to a company said to have benefited from contracts handed out by the PQ government.
Her intention was to save the government from any potential conflict of interest or scandal, but the premier never forgave her.
After the election loss of 2003, her public call for a leadership race, although honest, cost her dearly. In June 2005, when Landry resigned, his entourage, including his chief-of-staff and every pro-Landry MNA, worked for, or supported Boisclair.
So when the race became a card-selling contest, and Marois couldn't rely as much on her ideas and experience to convince party members, her goose was cooked.
Some would say that she should have acted more strategically. But that's a fairly simplistic afterthought.
This is where Payette's comment on "control" is so interesting. The combination of questionable campaign rules and the weight carried by a former leader's opposition would have proven lethal for any leadership contender other than Machiavelli.
That's why reducing this story to bad instincts on Marois's part is a bit like blaming the victim for her fate.