by Chantal Hebert
The Parti Quebecois has been a central force in Quebec’s political life for five decades.
On the eve of its 50th anniversary, those days could be coming to an end.
Next fall’s provincial election could see the PQ relegated to the same marginal role its federal cousin, the Bloc Quebecois, has been consigned to in the House of Commons since 2011.
With less than a year to go to the provincial vote, Quebec’s leading sovereigntist party is being elbowed out of the battle for government. The gap in support between the third-place PQ and its two main rivals is growing. Its lead on the fourth-place Quebec Solidaire is narrowing.
A Leger Marketing poll published by Le Devoir last weekend pegged support for the PQ at 20 per cent, nine points behind the ruling Liberals and 14 points behind the now-leading Coalition Avenir Quebec.
If those numbers hold, leader Jean-Francois LisÈe will lead his once-dominant party to a historical defeat.
As devastating as the Leger numbers might look, they did not come as a big surprise to most observers. Indeed, it was the fall of the Liberals to second place that initially caught everyone’s eye. The PQ has been steadily losing ground to the CAQ for months. In no small part, it is the author of its own misfortune.
By putting the party’s referendum plans on ice until at least 2022, LisÈe had hoped to remove an albatross from around his party’s neck. But the PQ’s strategic retreat from the sovereignty front is having the opposite effect.
With the drive to independence on pause, voters on both sides of the issue are feeling freer to shop for an alternative to Premier Philippe Couillard’s Liberals.
PQ strategists had hoped the showdown between Catalonia and Spain over the former’s bid for independence would breathe new life into their own cause. There was a time when the backlash in the rest of Canada over Bill 62 – the new Quebec law that prescribes that municipal and provincial services be rendered and received with one’s face uncovered – would have bolstered support for sovereignty and its main standard-bearer. So far neither issue has translated into support for the PQ.
CAQ leader Francois Legault has been in the lead in pre-election polls before, only to finish back in third place on voting day. He came out of the founding convention of his party in 2011 with an impressive lead, but subsequently failed to translate it into votes. But back then, Legault – who was initially recruited in politics under the sovereigntist banner – had just turned his back on the PQ. Many voters were suspicious of his federalist conversion. More than a few sovereigntists felt he had betrayed the cause.
Over the past six years, there has been a realignment of the Quebec tectonic plates along an axis other than that of federalism-versus-sovereignty. That is most noticeable on, but not exclusive to, the federal scene.
Legault has also ironed out some of his party’s more controversial policies. These days one does not hear the CAQ flirt with a two-tier health-care system. The party’s main focus is on the economy.
From its founding in 1968, the impact of the PQ was felt well beyond the confines of the province and not just because of the threat the party posed to the federation’s unity.
It was a PQ government, under Rene Levesque, that first drove corporate money out of political financing. The federal parties and a number of provinces now operate on variations of the Quebec model.
Leading sovereigntists such as former premiers Jacques Parizeau and Bernard Landry were early backers of free trade between Canada and the United States. Without Quebec support, Brian Mulroney’s 1988 Free Trade Agreement would not have survived that year’s federal election. Under Lucien Bouchard, the party pioneered a public child-care system that has no equivalent in the rest of the country or, for that matter, in the rest of North America.
Sovereignty has fallen out of favour with many younger Quebecers. The brand of nationalism promoted by the baby boomers who increasingly man by default the PQ front line is out of step with an increasingly diverse Quebec society. But it has also been a long time since the Parti Quebecois has presented Quebecers with the kind of ambitious leading-edge policies that beg to be rewarded with a spell in government.
Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Copyright 2017 and distributed by Torstar Syndication Services