PQ's demise greatly exaggerated

As long as both sovereignty and the left remain alive, the party will be there

Québec 2007 - Parti Québécois

Let's face it, things are not going well for the Parti Québécois. Their campaign doesn't seem to be taking off and some pundits suggest the PQ might come third – a result that would be, at best, humbling or, at worst, humiliating.
But will the PQ disappear?
Let's not get carried away, and just look at four basic propositions.
First of all, this election is not over.
Last week's Léger poll gave 36 per cent to the Liberals, 29 per cent to the PQ and 25 per cent to the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ).
This puts the Liberals and the PQ in a virtual tie with a little more than 50 seats each, while the ADQ would hold the balance of power with around 20 seats (the total is 125).
Given these numbers, reports of the PQ's demise seem greatly exaggerated.
But Mario Dumont's ADQ has momentum and the PQ is stalled, right?
The problem is that as the PQ's numbers go down they inch toward the party's core constituency of left-leaning sovereignists, and each new vote is harder to get for the ADQ. Indeed, for a federalist party of the right like the ADQ, disgruntled Liberals are a natural source of votes.
Also, Dumont's rise will invariably lead the media and the voters to scrutinize aspects of the ADQ's populist platform that don't make sense.
In this context, there should be many opportunities for André Boisclair to seize the initiative – if he can.
Fewer and fewer people believe Boisclair can pull this off. For months, the new PQ leader promised an infallible "game plan." Now the game is on and we still don't see the plan.
If Boisclair is unable to instill life into his campaign, some of the party's most faithful followers will defect to the leftist fringe of Québec Solidaire, vote Green or stay home.
If the worst-case scenario happens and the PQ finishes third, some federalists in Quebec and elsewhere will probably unfold the "Mission Accomplished" banner and proclaim the death of the PQ. That would be premature.
Second, sovereignty is not dead.
Amidst all the pre-election polls, one result seemingly went unnoticed. Last month CROP asked its respondents the 1995 referendum question; 48 per cent answered yes.
Since 1995, support for sovereignty topped 55 per cent on occasions and has never dipped below 40 per cent. Significantly, sovereignty consistently remains more popular than the PQ.
It is true that most people do not want a referendum at this time, but that is because many sovereignists need to be convinced that they can win it decisively.
Meanwhile, the sovereignty-federalism axis still remains the most prominent divide in Quebec politics.
A major asset for sovereignists is that younger generations are more favourably disposed toward a sovereign Quebec than their elders, and most people keep their allegiance as they get older.
Thus, sovereignty will remain a dominant feature of the political landscape for the predictable future, and even if only half of those who support sovereignty do so strongly, there will be a party to court them.
A third reason not to write off the PQ is that the left is not dead.
The rise of the ADQ and of Harper's Conservatives in Quebec has led some to ponder whether the province might have shifted markedly to the right.
In fact, on most issues polls reveal that Quebecers still tend to lean toward the left.
Negative reactions to the Charest government's so-called "re-engineering" of the state also suggest that neo-liberal policies have limited appeal in the province.
In sum, as long as both sovereignty and the left remain alive, there will be room for a sovereignist party of the centre-left in Quebec.
For 40 years, the PQ has occupied that space, forming strong bonds of party identification with committed sovereignist social democrats, including the leadership of Quebec's labour unions.
This core electorate is a good start, but it is not enough to win without a key ingredient, summarized in a fourth proposition: leadership matters.
Any party needs a strong leader to succeed, and no party, no matter how strong, can succeed with a leader that isn't up to the task.
The PQ is in dire straits now, largely because the leader its militants selected failed that crucial test.
It's not easy to choose the right party leader.
Just ask the federal Liberals: Paul Martin seemed a sure bet and he crashed; now many are having second thoughts about Stéphane Dion. Few, however, doubt that the party will survive.
For the Parti Québécois, the challenge of leadership is multiplied several times over.
PQ leaders have to live up to their mythic founder, René Lévesque; they have to reconcile the idealism of their members with the pragmatism of governing; they have to keep radical militants quiet while expanding the party's reach among moderates; they have to look like the potential founder of a new country; all this while smiling at the cameras and kissing babies.
All in all, leading the PQ is a thankless, nearly impossible job. Just ask Lucien Bouchard, who seemed to have everything it took, except the capacity to cope with the party's wacky internal politics.
Even with its chronic leadership problems, however, the PQ's long-term survival prospects are better then those of Dumont's ADQ, which is essentially a leader without a party.
With sovereignty within its reach but, barring extraordinary circumstances, beyond its grasp, the PQ is unlikely to disappear soon, whatever happens on March 26.
Remember Jacques Parizeau? The visit to the dentist is not about to end.

Pierre Martin is a professor of political science at the

Université de Montreal.

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Pierre Martin est professeur titulaire au Département de science politique de l’Université de Montréal et directeur de la Chaire d’études politiques et économiques américaines (CÉPÉA). Il est également membre du Groupe d’étude et de recherche sur la sécurité internationale (GERSI)

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