Is this the beginning of the end for the sovereigntist Parti Québécois? It is much too early to tell, of course. Still, the results of Monday's election are so devastating for the PQ that they sound like the first notes of a requiem.
For the first time since 1970 (when it finished fourth in terms of seats in that year's election), the PQ has ended up with third-party status. Its percentage of the popular vote (28.3 per cent) is also its lowest score since 1970, when it received 23.1 per cent (although the party placed second in terms of the popular vote).
Especially heartbreaking for the PQ is that, for the first time since 1976, it is no longer the favourite party of francophones. It now shares this distinction with Mario Dumont's Action Démocratique du Québec, which is now the Official Opposition.
With 36 MNAs (as compared with 41 for the ADQ), the PQ remains a political force, but it faces months, maybe years, of tough reckoning. Although the Péquistes are likely to soon look for another leader (one can already hear the sound of knives sharpening), it would be healthier for the party to start by reconsidering its platform, which hasn't substantially changed since the 1970s, as well as its radical commitment to secession. Chances are, however, the PQ militants will prefer to designate a scapegoat in the person of André Boisclair than to renounce their beloved dogma.
Whether it is temporary or a sign of the times, the decline of the PQ means that the issue of sovereignty, let alone the possibility of a referendum, will be on the backburner for a long time. More than two-thirds of the voters, by choosing either Jean Charest's federalist Liberal Party or Mr. Dumont's "autonomist" ADQ, in effect rejected sovereignty.
Or maybe the soft, ambivalent kind of nationalism proposed by the ADQ - an "autonomous" Quebec in a united Canada - served as a convenient, yet dignified, exit from the sovereigntist agenda. Quebeckers don't want to vote against sovereignty (this is why most of them don't want a referendum) and they don't want to be seen as unconditionally embracing federalism, because this would look like an abject surrender. A gradual move to some milder, innocuous version of sovereignty (even if it is a totally unrealistic scheme) is a graceful way out of the conundrum.
It would be a mistake to point to Mr. Boisclair as the culprit for the PQ's misfortune, although this somewhat haughty, cosmopolitan and gay man was not the best leader the PQ could have at a time when a right-wing populist wave was mounting throughout the province. People neither warmed to Mr. Boisclair nor identified with him. By contrast, the crowds loved "Mario" and chanted his name at every whistle stop.
The question now is not so much who could replace Mr. Boisclair as who would want to replace him. There will be a great deal of pressure on Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, who many Péquistes believe would be the best leader they could have. But Mr. Duceppe has it easy on the federal scene, and he might not be too enthusiastic at the idea of leading a divided and bitter party. In any case, he can use the coming federal election as the ideal pretext to turn down the job offer.
In the long run, the question is whether the ADQ will replace the PQ as Quebec's other major party. (The Liberal Party itself is not in danger; it is a permanent fixture because it rests on the solid bloc of anglophone and allophone voters). If the ADQ turns out to be no more than a brush fire (possible, although unlikely), and if the PQ manages to rebuild itself, the party of René Lévesque might have a future. If not, it will have been, as political scientist Vincent Lemieux once predicted, "the party of a generation."
Will the ADQ replace the PQ?
Mario Dumont's ambivalent nationalism is a convenient, yet dignified, exit from the sovereigntist agenda, says LYSIANE GAGNON