The Bloc's reckoning

I’ve remained resolutely bearish on the NDP’s prospects during this campaign. I wasn’t hatin’, I swear. I think Jack Layton has done an incredible job of filling the vacuum left by Gilles Duceppe’s phone-it-in, entirely middling campaign; I think by using his aw-shucks, joual-inflected French, he did a marvelous job of appealing to those whose vote for the Bloc have become similarly phoned-in over the last two years for more than two decades. And I’m thrilled to bits at the possibility of having a genuine right and left in this country without the latter inevitably coloured by the debate over Quebec separation.

It’s just that there was a hell of a headwind. First: no real ground game to speak of off the island of Montreal; candidates who were, let’s face it, considered fencepost furniture no more than two weeks ago; and this stream of wildly optimistic seat projections, each more crazy than the last. Optimistic winds of change that blow right to the ballot box? Or opportunistic piling on that starts and ends with the call from the pollster? The cynic inevitably believes the latter.

Then, there’s the history: given its support amongst off-island francophones, the Bloc has always had less of a problem with ‘junk vote’ that helps with vote percentage numbers but not in actual seats. (The Bloc tends to win its seats with less of a majority than, say, the Liberals.) It’s why Jean Charest won the popular vote in 1998, but lost the election to Lucien Bouchard.

But here’s the thing: that support has hardened in Montreal and spread significantly off-island, making Jack all the more bulletproof as a result. The sudden switch to the NDP more or less shows how the Bloc no longer has the monopoly on virtue it has enjoyed for over 20 decades. And whether or not the party suffers an out-and-out drubbing tonight, and I still have my doubts despite the buckets of orange paint threatening to spill all over the place, the Bloc is in for a long-overdue reckoning hinted at midway through the campaign.

Former NDP war room guy Robin Sears, with whom I share camera time on Power & Politics, had an interesting point the other day: In 1988, when Ed Broadbent seemed to be coasting into official opposition thanks to a now-familiar wave of goodwill in Quebec, Jacques Parizeau et al. came out en masse against him. Result: the PQ “machine gunned the NDP support,” as Sears put it. They lost something like two-thirds their vote in a matter of weeks. Poof.

Thing is, when the Bloc tried the same thing a few weeks ago—trot out Parizeau for a barn stormer—it utterly fizzled. “He looked like a bitter old man,” Sears said.

Which brings me to the Bloc’s curious mid-campaign switcheroo. Right around the time of the NDP’s bolt in the polls, the Bloc began this back-to-the-roots, proto-sovereignist tack that, on the outset, reeked of desperation—and it may well have been, since the party was basically telling the entire province that they could no longer take the hardcore sovereignist vote for granted.

But I think it might be something other than straight up fear. It hints at what’s to come for the Bloc. Having already lost that monopoly on virtue during the campaign, and with a possible drubbing coming in a matter of hours, the Bloc will retreat and renew. It will turf the mushy and disingenuous mantle of “defending Quebec’s interests” and return to its roots of promoting Quebec sovereignty in Ottawa.

The party that started as a coalition between Progressive Conservatives peeved at the failure of Meech Lake, Liberals peeved at Jean Chrétien and sovereignists peeved at everything will flush the vestiges of the former two from its ranks and its thinking and represent the enduring hardliners in the province. In short, it will become the party it should have always been.

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