Barring any surprises, Pierre Karl Péladeau, a successful businessman in the Québéc media space who entered politics for the first time last year, will become the new leader of the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ).
Though he was already the overwhelming favorite in the leadership election, Péladeau’s leadership hopes were almost reinforced by Bernard Drainville’s decision earlier this week to drop out of the contest, endorsing Péladeau. Drainville was the architect of the last PQ government’s disastrous attempt to enact the charte de la laïcité (Charter of Rights and Values) that would have banned government employees from wearing religious symbols and that critics argued would unfairly restrict the freedom of Muslim and other non-Christian recent migrants to Québec.
Drainville left the race after falling not only far behind Péladeau, but also behind Alexandre Cloutier, a member of Québec’s National Assembly since 2007, and a former minister for Québec’s north and Canadian intergovernmental affairs.
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The vote follows the swift defeat of Pauline Marois’s minority government in April 2014. After Marois lost her own constituency in the election, she announced her resignation as party leader. When former Bloc québécois leader Gilles Duceppe declined to run for the leadership, Péladeau quickly emerged as the leading candidate. PQ members will cast a first ballot between May 13 and 15, with a second ballot to follow if no candidate wins a majority.
In the latest Leger poll from early April, Péladeau had the support of 59% of PQ voters, compared to just 13% for Cloutier and 9% for Drainville.
If he succeeds next month, Péladeau will lead a party as much in the wilderness as it’s been since its creation in 1968.
Young Quebeckers are less enthusiastic about independence, and moderate sovereigntists seem happy enough with options like the centrist Coalition Avenir Québec of François Legault at the provincial level and the progressive New Democratic Party at the federal level, which continues to lead polls for October’s federal elections.
But Péladeau, whose full-throated call for an independent Québec played a role in the party’s ignoble tumble from power in the April 2014 elections, may not be the silver bullet for Québec’s sovereigntist movement. As the longtime former CEO of Quebecor, the province’s leading media company, Péladeau brings a free-market instinct to a party that’s been most comfortable on the statist left. One of last stars of the sovereigntist movement was Lucien Bouchard, a close ally of former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney in the 1980s. Bouchard left national politics and ultimately became Québec’s premier after leading the ‘Yes’ camp in the narrow 1995 independence referendum.
But with the federal-oriented Bloc québécois struggling for relevance after its 2011 landslide defeat (it lost 43 of its 47 seats) and with the rise of the leftist and pro-independence Québec solidaire, Péladeau risks becoming more like former Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff than Bouchard — a tone-deaf leader who fails to inspire support among the electorate.
Péladeau came to politics only shortly before the 2014 elections, and his inexperience often shows. For example, in March, he was sharply criticized for arguing that ‘demography and immigration’ were responsible for the flagging popularity of the independence movement, words that mirrored former premier Jacques Parizeau’s bitter statement blaming the 1995 referendum loss on ‘money and the ethnic vote.’
It was a classic political gaffe — in that Péladeau accidentally told the truth. The demographics of the independence movement are not in the PQ’s favor, because so many young voters simply don’t care about independence or preserving the French language. If immigrants to Québec prefer that their new home remains part of the larger federal Canada, it’s no surprise after Marois’s government spent so much of its energy trying to enact a charter of secular values that Muslim Quebeckers saw as an affront to their religious liberty.
But both the province-level Party québécois, and its federal counterpart, the Bloc québécois, are victims of their own success. When the BQ emerged in the 1990s, it showed Quebeckers that they could sharply influence the debate on federal and constitutional matters. Prime minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party may not be incredibly popular in the left-leaning Québec, but he didn’t hesitate early in his premiership to acknowledge that the province constituted a ‘nation’ within Canada. He consistently refused to take Marois’s bait to escalate tensions with Ottawa. Moreover, even under Jean Charest and the federalist Parti libéral du Québec, the provincial government won beneficial budget concessions from Harper.
Though the current premier, the PLQ’s Phillipe Couillard, has a strong majority government, polls show that Péladeau would restore the PQ’s competitiveness — for now. Coulliard doesn’t have to call fresh elections until October 2018, which means that Péladeau will have a long time to hone his political skills as opposition leader.
Either way, in the next three years, the party will have to make a choice, informed in large part on demographics and immigration — either find a way to restore the independence movement’s vitality or embrace a more accommodating sovereigntist-but-just-short-of-independence position as the province’s leading social democratic party.
Since entering politics last year, the one-time business executive has made it clear that he will choose the former. Perhaps, with rising pro-independence sentiment in Scotland, Catalunya and elsewhere, Péladeau can make independence a priority for a new generation of Quebeckers, many of whom speak English and have few problems with their fellow Canadians. If Péladeau fails, however, his leadership might force the party into extinction, with Legault’s CAQ and Françoise David’s leftist Québec solidaire picking up the pieces.