National Column: Poll should give PQ pause about its future

by Chantal Hebert

With sovereignty on the back burner in Quebec for the foreseeable future, is there life for the Parti
Quebecois as a defining political force?

Or is the party that nearly secured a majority pro-secession vote in 1995 running on empty now that it has put off plans for a referendum until at least 2022?

Both questions are back to the fore in the wake of the publication earlier this week of a devastating poll for the PQ.

Done by Mainstreet in mid-May, it shows the PQ running a distant third at 24 per cent behind the ruling Liberals (31 per cent) and the leading Coalition Avenir QuÈbec (32 per cent).

Among the francophone voters who determine the outcome of an election, Mainstreet reported a nine-point lead for the CAQ with the PQ at 26 per cent, barely ahead of the Liberals (25 per cent). In what may be a first for the sovereigntist party since it first formed a government in the mid-seventies, the PQ has fallen behind in every age group.

The next Quebec election is scheduled for the fall of 2018. Much water will flow under the bridge until then. Over the past decade, volatility has been a defining feature of the Quebec landscape. But the PQ may be facing a perfect storm of its own making.

When he successfully ran for the leadership of the party less than a year ago, Jean-FranÁois LisÈe persuaded PQ activists to set aside the referendum file until a second majority mandate.

He argued that to continue to insist on promising to stage another referendum in the face of the unwillingness of a majority of Quebecers to revisit the issue of their political future amounted to a
recipe for repeat electoral defeats.

Absent the prospect of an unwanted referendum, he believed voters would coalesce behind the PQ in the hope of ousting the Liberals from power.

In hindsight, LisÈe’s rationale was probably better suited to the bygone era when the PQ had a virtual monopoly on the non-Liberal vote. With four parties represented in the National Assembly, Quebecers have never had so many options to choose from.

If anything, the decision to pull the referendum from its next PQ platform may have enticed more voters to explore other options.

Take the older group of nationalist voters – a contingent that until recently was the last to favour the PQ. Some stuck with the party in the now relatively vain hope that it would achieve Quebec’s independence within their lifetime.

Or take the federalist Quebecers who held their noses and overlooked the Liberals’ ethical lapses to keep a referendum at bay. Chances are more than a few of the voters that have propelled the CAQ to first place in the Mainstreet poll hail from those two groups.

The CAQ has led in voting intentions before only to finish a distant third place on election night. But after two campaigns as leader, FranÁois Legault has established a comfort zone with the electorate. That is not quite as true of LisÈe, who still has to lead the PQ in an election, or of Premier Philippe Couillard. The two have in common that they are brainy politicians who are somewhat short of the common touch.

And then there is the fledgling left-of-centre QuÈbec Solidaire party. It holds three seats in the National Assembly. It is becoming a magnet for the emerging political talents whose recruitment the PQ used to take for granted. Mainstreet pegged its support this month at 14 per cent. If Quebec broke three ways between the main parties next year, QS could aspire to hold the balance of power in the way that the Greens may be about to in British Columbia.

Lisee wants to strike an electoral alliance with QuÈbec Solidaire. The latter’s members will have to decide this weekend whether to enter in negotiation with the PQ.

But the two parties are on opposite pages on identity politics of the securalism charter variety. While QS is nominally sovereigntist, a solid number of its supporters are not. Its left-wing politics do not sit well with many PQ supporters.

An alliance between the two could end up driving away more of their respective sympathizers than the opposite.

As often as not the PQ has won elections over the decades in spite of its sovereigntist agenda. Many federalists felt that, on balance, it was a positive force for progressive good. Its past contributions to modern Quebec are undeniable. But today the Parti QuÈbÈcois comes across as a party long on tactical ambitions for itself but short of compelling ambitions for Quebec.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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