The never-say-die campaign of Martine Ouellet

Martine Ouellet has been an underdog since the Parti Québécois leadership race began in May. But polls show her campaign is surging. Does she stand a realistic chance of becoming the party's next leader?

Polls show her campaign surging. Does she stand a realistic chance of becoming the PQ's next leader?

Martine Ouellet, seen here as natural resources minister in 2013, is hoping her second crack at the PQ leadership will be more successful than the first. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Martine Ouellet has been an underdog since the Parti Québécois leadership race began in May. 

She doesn't have the big name supporters of front-runner Alexandre Cloutier, nor does she have the long experience of her closest rival, Jean-Francois Lisée.

But she has waged a scrappy campaign throughout the summer, managing to wrangle headlines for herself. And she now appears to be surging as the race enters its final month.

With the sudden departure of Véronique Hivon from the race, Ouellet now finds herself in third place. A poll by Léger, commissioned by the Journal de Montréal and Le Devoir, shows Ouellet with 18 per cent support, behind Lisée's 23 per cent and Cloutier's 39 per cent. 

Polls suggest Alexandre Cloutier has a large lead over his three rivals in the race for the PQ leadership. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Impressive jump

That represents a jump of 11 percentage points for Ouellet since the last Léger poll taken in June — evidence that a series of shrewd moves is paying dividends. 

Her latest came Friday, when she announced she was adopting elements of Hivon's program. It was a bold play for the support of the five MNAs who backed Hivon and are now being courted by the other camps. 

That comes in addition to a number of attention grabbing statements. Earlier this week she said, as premier, she would consider nationalizing internet infrastructure in Quebec if telecommunications companies failed to make their services more accessible. 

She turned the heads of many federalists when she proposed Quebec athletes compete under the Quebec flag at international events like the Olympics. And she turned the heads of many sovereigntists by repeatedly blasting Lisée and Cloutier for failing to commit to holding a referendum in the first term of a PQ government.

"It's changing and I can feel it," Ouellet said of her campaign during an interview with The Canadian Press on Saturday. 

"In Trois-Rivières, where I was this morning, the room was full, everyone was standing up. There were a hundred people there."

Jean-François Lisée is polling second behind Cloutier in the PQ leadership race. (Canadian Press)

Benefits of the ballot

This is not Ouellet's first stab at the PQ leadership. She also ran to replace Pauline Marois in 2014, finishing a distant third behind Cloutier, himself a distant second behind runaway winner Pierre Karl Péladeau. 

The party, though, has adopted a different vote counting system this time, which may benefit Ouellet. Unlike the run-off system of the last leadership race, the PQ will rely on a preferential ballot to tabulate the votes on Oct. 7.

A preferential ballot allows voters to rank their choices for leader, and is thought to limit the tactical voting that can doom third and fourth-place candidates. 

Ouellet could stand to benefit from the switch to a preferential ballot system. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Ouellet's supporters, in other words, won't be pressured to vote for someone else in order to block an even worse option — voting for Cloutier, for instance, to prevent a Lisée win.

But at some point she will need to leapfrog Lisée, or her name will be dropped from the ballot as successive rounds of counting push one candidate towards the 50-per cent threshold. 

With each round, the bottom name gets dropped and their votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates based on the second or third choices of the voters. 

As it stands now, with fourth-place Paul St-Pierre Plamondon at only one per cent, Ouellet would likely make it to a third round before her supporters would be divided among Cloutier and Lisée and ultimately decide the winner of the race.

Between now and the start of voting on Oct. 5, the party will hold a series of debates — a chance for Ouellet to score points against the front-runners. 

If her scrappy campaign thus far has been any indication, expect her to come out swinging.


Jonathan Montpetit is a Senior Investigative Journalist with CBC News, where he covers social movements and democracy. You can send him tips at

with files from La Presse Canadienne