The Parti Québécois is in shambles. Recently deprived of its leader, in whom countless party faithful had entrusted their hopes and dreams, the party embarks on an immediate search for a new saviour. This person must at once calm the forever restive sovereignist base and inject new vigour into the party’s raîson d’être. Balancing ideology and electability, a difficult proposition for the PQ at the best of times, is made practically untenable a by recent, humiliating defeat. “The uncertain future of the Parti Québécois,” reads a La Presse headline.
A leaderless party, a disinterested public and a heaping load of existential ennui. Such was the Parti Québécois circa summer 1985—31 years ago, when shoulder pads were a thing and Kenny Loggins was still a year away from riding into the Danger Zone. Here’s the sad part, in which the stagnation of Quebec political culture is all-too-apparent: the same paragraph describes the 2016-era PQ as well.
To wit: leader Pierre-Karl Péladeau left the party last week in a haze of perpetually middling poll numbers and pressing personal issues. He did so about a year after taking the job and two years after the PQ’s worst loss in terms of popular vote in its history. As in 1985, potential successors have uttered declarations of renewal, or otherwise made vague promises of such, but were inevitably bogged down in the when and how of a referendum.
It is an aged equation, one baked into the fit of pique that is a PQ leadership race: push the sovereignty issue aside, and infuriate the PQ base; talk about it too much, and you become unelectable. Recent history suggests the PQ has somehow managed to do both. The party has held power for all of 18 months and has chewed through five leaders in the last 13 years. The last PQ leader to win and serve a complete four-year mandate without fizzling out or getting shivved in the back? René Lévesque, in 1976. Current presumptive leadership candidate Alexandre Cloutier wasn’t even born yet.
This Gong Show-like abstraction would be amusing to the sadists among us, save for one key detail: it has given carte blanche to the Liberals, who manifestly do not deserve the power with which they have so often been entrusted. In 1985, the PQ elected Pierre-Marc Johnson, a 39-year-old lawyer whose fresh face and pragmatic take on sovereignty—he wanted to shelve the issue for at least one election cycle—were seen as electoral gold.
They weren’t. After all of three months as premier, Johnson was swept aside by Robert Bourassa, who 10 years earlier was dubbed “the most despised man in Quebec” because of his government’s corruption-plagued tenure. Think about it: Quebecers re-elected a guy who literally had to leave the country in 1976 because he was getting spat on in the streets of Montreal.
Fast forward to 2014, and Quebecers again elected the Liberals rather than endure another moment of the Parti Québécois, which formed a minority government in 2012. This, despite near-record dissatisfaction levels for the previous Liberal government, which began life in 2003 and ended 10 years later in flurry of corruption, favouritism and demonstrable electoral fraud. The PQ seems less an opposition party than part and parcel of the Liberal Party of Quebec’s re-election strategy.
The situation has frustrated other politicians in Quebec. François Legault leads the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), the province’s right-of-centre party whose brand of nationalism—a strong Quebec in a united Canada—probably best encapsulates Quebec’s nebulous political whims. In return, the Liberals have paid Legault the ultimate backwards compliment by poaching two former CAQ MNAs and sticking them in cabinet.
The problem, of course, is that Legault is himself a former PQ candidate, and has therefore spent considerable political capital over the last five years trying to convince the incredulous that he isn’t a crypto-sovereignist himself. To this end, according to a CAQ operative I spoke with recently, Legault will embark on a tour with stops in Toronto and Calgary to speak en anglais about his party and his goals.
The PQ will soon pick a new leader. It marks the first time in the party’s history that two bona fide members of the Gen X generation, Cloutier and Véronique Hivon, are running for what has essentially become a protest party for aging Baby Boomers. If this youthful gut shot is a cause for celebration—and it always is in politics—it’s tempered by the party’s own history of eating its leaders and losing to the Liberals.
We need a proper opposition in Quebec, one that can take power from the Liberals and form a government without the constant threat of self-destruction. What we don’t need is another installment of the 30-year soap opera. Frankly, it’s gotten boring to watch.