MONTREAL — When Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon launched his party’s election campaign, he described his candidates as a “Cinderella team” that would go further than people expect.
It was an acknowledgment of the low expectations of the PQ.
Once the spokesperson for a generation of Quebec sovereigntists, the PQ is in last place among the five major parties and pollsters predict it will win a seat in the October 3 election: the riding of Matane-Matapédia, on the lower shore of the St. Lawrence River.
“The Parti Québécois could end up with only one seat in the (legislature),” Valérie-Anne Mahéo, a political science professor at Laval University, said in a recent interview.
“It would raise serious questions about its future and the possibility of it continuing as the political path of the sovereignty movement and, I would say, as a viable alternative for governing Quebec.”
Mahéo and other political analysts say the PQ is struggling to stand out in an increasingly crowded political landscape where other issues – like health care, the environment and the economy – have eclipsed the debate on independence. The party’s decline also reflects the fact that Quebec politics is becoming increasingly “normal”, she said, centered on a left-right divide rather than the question of Quebec sovereignty.
Many former PQ voters have flocked to François Legault’s center-right Coalition Avenir Québec, which promises to defend the language and culture of Quebecers, but to do so within Canada. Other PQ voters, meanwhile, chose Quebec solidaire, a nominally sovereignist party that focuses more on issues like the environment and affordable housing, Mahéo said.
In the last provincial elections, in 2018, about 41% of people who had voted for the PQ four years earlier had chosen one of these two parties instead, she said, adding that two-thirds of these voters supported the CAQ. The latest election was the first time the PQ received less than 20% of the popular vote since the party was founded in the late 1960s and was the second election since 1973 that did not result in the formation of a PQ government or of the official opposition.
If elected, St-Pierre Plamondon has promised to hold an independence referendum in his first term, prevent non-English speakers from attending English-language colleges, and ensure that all economic immigrants speak French before arriving in Quebec. He also rejected the income tax cuts promised by the CAQ, the Liberals and the Conservatives, in order to maintain the funding of public services.
“We campaign on hope,” said St-Pierre Plamondon in a recent interview. “We believe that the future of the French language in North America, our right to democratically decide for ourselves and the future of the environment are fundamental subjects.”
St-Pierre Plamondon, who has never held a seat in the Legislative Assembly, said the PQ’s success in October means growing the party and surprising people.
“I’m in the underdog position and I’m very comfortable in that position, it’s something I’ve experienced before,” he said.
He added that when he entered the PQ leadership race in 2020 – his second attempt at party leadership – he was voting 5%. He would later win in the second round with 56 percent.
The PQ has few options this election campaign other than to focus on Quebec sovereignty, said Philippe J. Fournier, who runs polling aggregation website QC125.com.
“It’s absolutely the right strategy. It’s going to upset a majority of Quebecers, but they’re not trying to please the majority of Quebecers, they just want the sovereignists back in their fold,” Fournier said.
“Even if it sounds a little desperate, it’s the right strategy because it’s what defines them.”
Sylvain Roy, a former PQ member of the Legislative Assembly who was elected in 2012 and chose to sit as an independent in 2021, said he thinks focusing on sovereignty during the campaign will likely shore up the base of the PQ, but is unlikely to win over other voters. .
The PQ once viewed voters as citizens to engage in a society-wide project, but now the party values voters as consumers to sell a product, he lamented.
Roy, who is not running for re-election, said the party has also lost touch with important issues in places like the Gaspé Peninsula, where his riding of Bonaventure is located. For the fishermen in his riding, obtaining control from the federal government over the banks where shellfish are harvested is more important than language policy.
“It’s very popular for someone in Montreal, but for people back home it’s a problem,” he said.
For Roy, the PQ’s strategy seems to be to hope that the other parties are wrong.
“The PQ was at one time a party that inspired a lot of hope and inversely proportional to the hopes it inspired, it also inspired a lot of discontent by the decisions it made when it was in power,” said he said. “Expectations were high and the goods weren’t delivered on all sorts of things.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 4, 2022.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press