PQ debates the need for 50% plus 1


Friday, February 06, 2004
There's something Pavlovian about Parti Québécois national council meetings. Funny how the sound of one coming always brings the PQ leader running to make some statement or other about sovereignty.
On Wednesday, just three days before tomorrow's national council in Laval, Bernard Landry set out yet another deadline for a referendum: 2008. Why 2008, you ask? To mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City. Here's how it goes: the PQ wins the next election and holds a quick "winning referendum." Et voilà! A brand-new country in time for the lavish festivities planned for 2008.
Why the need for this new deadline? While tomorrow's council has something to do with it, there's more to it than that. Promising a referendum in 2008 is the one carrot Landry is waving to stave off those in his party who are advocating the idea of a referendum election in which the PQ would declare sovereignty by way of an electoral mandate instead of a referendum.
Although he says he welcomes such a debate and will include it in his "season of ideas," Landry has vowed to fight that option. But he has a problem. The "referendum election" is gaining popularity fast inside and outside PQ ranks. Since younger PQ members launched the idea last year, it's sparked the interest of many others, young and old. Prominent sovereignists such as Marcel Lefebvre, former PQ minister Pierre DeBellefeuille and PQ MNA Jean-Claude St-André are supporting it openly. Even Jacques Parizeau has shown interest in it.
Tomorrow, Landry will be facing two resolutions about it. The one from Lotbinière is straightforward, asking for an open debate on the issue. The one from Montérégie is more complicated, asking that a "referendum election" would click in only if the PQ gets 50 per cent plus one of the votes in the election, an impossibility for any party. If members don't amend it to yank out this reference of 50 per cent plus one, they can kiss their dream of sovereignty goodbye.
Another reason why Landry pulled "2008" out of his hat is the crucial issue of leadership. Convinced Jean Charest is sinking fast, Landry sounds like he wants to be premier again. But here, too, he has a problem. The two main contenders, Pauline Marois and François Legault, can also feel the leather of the premier's seat.
They've picked up the pace of their informal leadership campaign. Legault keeps wooing hard-liners by passing himself off as one of them. Marois is on a cross-Quebec tour and has launched her own Web site. In it, she defends what she calls "continued sovereignty," which sounds a lot like the neo-federalist approach of Jean-François Lisée. PQ members are also invited to partake in "chat" sessions with former PQ minister Joseph Facal, one of her main advisers.
There's even a surprise: The name of FTQ president Henri Massé, who some influential sovereignists would like to see run in a future PQ leadership campaign, is on the list of "chatters." Even Gérald Larose, president of the supposed nonpartisan Conseil de la souveraineté, is on the list.
Given all this movement, Landry must now woo PQ members, too. But to stay on as leader, he must get a solid vote of confidence at next year's convention. For this, party members must believe he's the one who'll take them to the promised land. Hence, the 2008 referendum.
But will members believe him? After all, it was a couple of years ago he promised a referendum for 2005, in time for the Summit of the Americas, another symbolic event. Yet, he refused to commit to that same referendum during the election campaign of 2003, even imposing the concept of a "confederal union" in the election platform without any debate by members.
Some members could also remember April 1995. When support for sovereignty was low, Landry was the one who fought Parizeau's intention to hold a quick referendum. That's when Landry stated he didn't want to be the second in command of the Light Brigade. Wouldn't he respond in the same way if push came to shove?
So why would members trust him this time? One possible answer is some feel they have no choice. Few find Marois or Legault inspiring. That's why some members think the only thing that would allow for the possibility of more interesting candidates to appear is for the PQ to hold its first true leadership campaign in 20 years.
This can only happen in one of two ways. One is for the current leader to announce he'll step down after next year's convention and forego putting party members through the drama of a confidence vote. The other is for Marois and Legault to campaign harder and for their supporters to vote against Landry's leadership next year.
But first things first. Before anyone actually believes there will be a referendum in 2008, tomorrow's national council will tell whether PQ members can even debate the option of a referendum election, openly and without this limitation of 50 per cent plus one.

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