The road back for PQ

Landry lost the election because he wasn't sovereignist enough, so PQ supporters stayed home or voted ADQ. That's a lesson for the next PQ leader

Élections 2003

On Monday, voter turnout was at a mere 70 per cent. That's almost 10 percentage points less than in the 1998 election. Among those who stayed home were many sovereignists. This, in part, is what sent the Parti Québécois into opposition.
The mathematics are simple. The PQ received 33 per cent of the popular vote - the lowest since 1973 - while 40 to 45 per cent of Quebecers support sovereignty. That's a gap large enough to cost the election - a gap that is mainly the product of the choices Bernard Landry made regarding his party's option: no firm commitment to hold a referendum if re-elected, the imposing of a fuzzy concept called "confederal union," and the dumping of Jacques Parizeau from the PQ campaign after the leaders' debate.
He refused to present sovereignty as a central stake of the election. Instead, thinking it would play well in a probable war situation, Landry led a campaign based on continuity and good government. But that choice failed to address the will for change a majority of Quebecers had expressed for more than a year. Most of all, it failed to present sovereignty as the real change that could better the lives of Quebecers. That choice of campaign themes was reflected in the premier's concession speech. He devoted most of it to how well the PQ had "managed" Quebec, to how much he wants his party to manage it again as soon as possible, mentioning sovereignty last, almost as an afterthought.
One thing is increasingly clear. Since the last referendum, the PQ has become a party of "governance" more than a party whose only reason to take power is to try to achieve sovereignty. Landry himself refused to break away from the Bouchard era and put sovereignty back at the centre of the government's discourse and actions. Instead, most energy went into governance and building a cross-Canada consensus on the very provincial issue of fiscal imbalance. So, left with the uninspiring mission of picking who'll mind the provincial store for the next four years, a number of traditional PQ supporters simply stayed home or voted ADQ.
It's as if no lesson has been learned from the past. Looking at the results of the 1980 referendum, one would think the PQ leadership would know that delivering a "good government" doesn't bring Quebecers to vote Yes. Only a combination of outright promotion of sovereignty and taking on the federal government directly, when necessary, could provide a truly political and pedagogical approach. But that's an approach only Jacques Parizeau was willing to take.
So what now? The PQ is about to enter its first leadership race since 1985, although Landry might be tempted to stick around for a while. Not only did his party do well enough to allow him to do so; he also might want to allow enough time for his favourite heir apparent, François Legault, to garner sufficient money and contacts to face front-runner Pauline Marois and all the other potential contenders, such as André Boisclair, Joseph Facal, Diane Lemieux, Daniel Turp and others. Who knows, even the self-appointed left-wing spokesperson Françoise David could consider jumping in. Also expect to see Jean-François Lisée - Bouchard's former advisor who proposed to give renewed federalism another chance in his book Sortie de secours - looming around in the backrooms and pushing one of the candidates.
The problem is that none of these possible contenders is what might be called a hard-line sovereignist. Most would be more aptly regarded as "autonomists" who stand to go into the next election promising yet again a good government and no clear position on the national question. A worrisome perspective.
Though no one has a crystal ball, chances are Jean Charest's Liberals could be in power for the next eight years. That would take us to 2011. That's an awfully long time for the sovereignist option to lie low, especially since it's already done so since 1995. And it's a long, long time to allow the federal government to continue trying to strengthen the Canadian identity of francophone Quebecers. But to paraphrase Landry's concession speech, what's a few more thousand days between good friends?
As for those sovereignists who take solace in the hope Charest and Paul Martin will reopen the constitutional Pandora's box and provoke a failure that would feed the Yes side, here's a message: Since the rejection of the Charlottetown accord, no federalist would be suicidal enough to walk down that path again.
Given this whole context - including the fact that Bouchard also purged the PQ of most of its hard-line members - will sovereignty make a comeback some time in the future, or is it on the verge of turning into an eternally unfulfilled dream? Facing a clearly federalist Liberal Party and a "we-don't-care-anymore" ADQ, will the PQ turn into a more classic nationalist, autonomist party?
Or will an as yet unforseen strong sovereignist materialize and win an eventual PQ leadership race?
So when is Jacques Parizeau coming back from France anyway?

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