The idea of citizen-driven referendums has inspired grassroots chatter within the Parti Québécois for years. It was a crisis of Pauline Marois's leadership, several months ago, that finally made it party policy.

Now the ticking "time bomb," in the words of one longtime party insider, has gone off just as Marois was strolling through a trouble-free election campaign.

The possible premier-in-waiting has performed a sudden about-face on the policy and now says that, no, a PQ government would not be forced to hold a vote on independence whenever people gathered a few hundred thousand names on a petition.

Marois now says such a petition would simply be taken under advisement. Under the constitutional order, she says, parliamentarians must have the final say on these kinds of decisions.

The PQ has raised, debated and, for a variety of reasons, rejected the idea of allowing citizens to petition for referendums before. Marois herself opposed the plan in 2008.

But amid a wave of discontent within the party last year, an ambitious young member of the PQ caucus took the opportunity to resurrect the moribund idea.

Marois headed into last summer's legislative recess with her leadership critically weakened by a string of caucus defections. A coup was rumoured to be afoot.

Bernard Drainville, a former Radio-Canada journalist, drew up 10 proposals that he said would take the party out of its "bubble," and better connect with citizens.

The proposals included allowing citizen-initiated referendums, of the sort seen in numerous jurisdictions from California to British Columbia to Switzerland.

Drainville tabled the idea at a PQ convention early this year. Marois was fighting off a potential challenge from former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe.

In a party whose grassroots constantly clamours for measures that might bring Quebec closer to independence, the idea of referendums-on-demand was a surefire crowd-pleaser. So Marois, grudgingly, went along.

"She has always been against this," political analyst Jean Lapierre told Montreal radio listeners on 98.5 FM on Thursday.

"Gilles Duceppe wanted her job. She was weakened. She was afraid others would leave the party, Bernard Drainville among them. So he rammed it down her throat."

Marois kept her job and citizen-initiated referendums became party policy.

Confusion over terms

Her unease with the idea became apparent almost immediately.

At a news conference in February to unveil details of the proposal, Marois seemed to offer contradictory interpretations with each answer.

In one instance she said a referendum sparked by a petition would be "binding" on the government. In another, she said "the citizen-initiated referendum is not the referendum in itself."

Somehow, for the following six months, the issue remained dormant.

It had hardly even come up during the current election campaign, which draws to its close next week. All of that changed when François Legault started picking away at the issue.

Marois's rival, the leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec party and her one-time cabinet colleague, pressed her on the issue during televised debates this week.

Her replies to Legault prompted journalists to grill her on the issue at a news conference after the Wednesday night debate and again on Thursday. A visibly annoyed Marois did clarify her position on the petitions.

If 15 per cent of Quebec's population, or just over 850,000 people — subject to regional requirements as well — signed a petition, the public could essentially ask elected politicians to consider holding a plebiscite, she explained.

"It would force a government to reflect deeply," Marois said. "Ultimately, it's up to the national assembly to decide when there will be a referendum."

'Constitutional law 101'

One political scholar expressed bafflement that the PQ would ever have considered the idea.

"Citizen-initiated referendums are not very compatible with a British-inspired parliamentary system," said Antonin-Xavier Fournier, a professor of politics CEGEP de Sherbrooke.

"Citizens themselves can't oblige Parliament and the Crown to adopt a law. It's what we call 'the supremacy of Parliament.' "

This, Fournier said, is hardly top-secret information.

"This is constitutional law 101," he said.

Drainville acknowledged this point in interviews Thursday. But he told Radio-Canada that the moral weight of 850,000 signatures would bring political pressure on governments to respond, even if they are not legally bound to do so.

What it would also do, he said, is make democracy more relevant to citizens again.

Drainville used the example of a corruption inquiry, which Quebecers had been demanding for more than two years before the Charest government finally called one. He said it would have happened faster with the PQ petition plan.

In establishing a 15 per cent threshold, the PQ is setting the bar significantly higher than other jurisdictions that have adopted petition-driven referendums.

In Switzerland, for instance, petitions only require 100,000 signatures — or about two per cent of the electorate. That led to the referendum on banning minarets on mosques. The PQ has explained that its rules for the petitions would require that any referendum question would respect Quebec's charter of rights.