Analysis

Parti Québécois faces tough call as PKP signals he's ready for comeback

Pierre Karl Péladeau's comments that he is "ready to serve" if the sovereignist cause needs him have likely ignited hope in some desperate members of the faltering PQ. PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée says he's welcome. But Lisée would do well to be wary.

PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée says Pierre Karl Péladeau is welcome back, but Lisée would do well to be wary

Pierre Karl Péladeau's comments that he is 'ready to serve' should the sovereignist cause need him has led to whisperings on social media: should the PQ consider taking him back and ousting leader Jean-François Lisée? (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Pierre Karl Péladeau is sending signals he's considering a return to politics.

The media magnate, who led the Parti Québécois for just under a year before his abrupt departure in May 2016, gave an interview to Radio-Canada this week in which he said he is "ready to serve" if the sovereignist cause needs him.

Those words have likely ignited hope in some desperate members of the faltering PQ.

A Mainstreet poll out this week indicates the PQ has sunk to a dismal 18 per cent, third behind the Coalition Avenir Québec and the Quebec Liberal Party, which stand virtually neck and neck with 32 per cent and 31 per cent support, respectively.

More to the point, the PQ under its current leader, Jean-François Lisée, is now in third place even among francophone voters.

Lisée himself fares even worse. He is voters' fourth-place choice as leader, behind the CAQ's François Legault, the PLQ's Philippe Couillard and Québec Solidaire's tandem of Manon Massé and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.

Alexandre Cloutier, 40, said last week he will see out his mandate but not be a candidate for the Oct. 1 election. The one-time PQ leadership candidate made his announcement the same day that veteran MNAs Nicole Léger and Agnès Maltais said they, too, are leaving politics. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

What's at stake for PQ

Those are worrisome figures for sovereignists.

The PQ could see itself demoted in the National Assembly from Official Opposition to third party — or worse. And if it receives less than 20 per cent of the popular vote, the PQ could even lose its official party status and the funding that comes with that.

It's disheartening for caucus members.

Last week, three MNAs announced they would not run again.

Nicole Léger and Agnès Maltais are veterans whose decision to retire can be chalked up to their long service. But the loss of Alexandre Cloutier — a bright star of the party and only 40 years of age — was a blow.

Quebec's election date is fixed for Oct. 1. By any standard, that should mean it is too late for any party to switch jockeys in this race.

However, the sovereignist movement has a record of making that leap.

In 1995, when the Yes campaign in the referendum seemed to be faltering under Jacques Parizeau's leadership, Lucien Bouchard was brought in from Ottawa to be "chief negotiator."

In reality, he displaced Parizeau as the campaign's leader and replaced him as party leader when the No side won and Parizeau resigned.
Jacques Parizeau, right, embraces Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard at a rally in Montreal Oct. 7, 1995. Bouchard was named the chief negotiator for Quebec in any talks with Canada after a Yes vote. (Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz)

In 2015, Gilles Duceppe returned to active politics to lead the Bloc Québécois into the federal election.

He took over from the little-known Mario Beaulieu, who had taken over the reins from Duceppe in 2011.

All that for nought though: Duceppe lost the election and his seat and resigned again.

Péladeau's tearful goodbye

Péladeau left politics in May 2016, for purely personal reasons.

He was going through a break-up with TV star Julie Snyder, and by all accounts, he faced an ultimatum: choose politics or his children.
Parti Québécois Leader Pierre Karl Péladeau held back tears during a news conference in Montreal May 2, 2016, where he announced he was quitting politics for family reasons. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Forced into a corner, he tearfully bade goodbye to politics. He never had the chance to lead the party in an election campaign.

Less than two years later, Péladeau says his personal life is back on track, and even his children have encouraged him to pursue his dreams.

PKP's timing is revealing

The timing of Péladeau's comeback comments is important.

He made them the day before the PQ caucus met in Trois-Rivières to prepare for the upcoming session of the National Assembly.

As soon as his words went out over the airwaves, whisperings began on social media: should the PQ consider taking him back and ousting leader Jean-François Lisée?

Lisée himself has tried to be as sanguine as possible, given the circumstances.

Speaking to reporters from the caucus retreat, he said Péladeau would make an excellent addition to the PQ's team of candidates, and he's actively trying to persuade him to run.

He said he himself would be leader for, at most, three mandates – or about 12 years – and that it was important to have future leaders in the picture.

Jean-François Lisée said Tuesday he would be 'overjoyed' by a Pierre Karl Péladeau's reappearance on the political scene. (CBC)

Lisée should be wary, though.

Even if Péladeau has shelved his leadership aspirations and is willing to run for a seat as a regular MNA, Lisée should remember what a strong shadow he can cast.

In the 2014 election, Pauline Marois found herself upstaged by Péladeau. And Marois had much more star power than Lisée has today.

Policy convention this weekend

The reality is that Lisée's position is fragile.

The PQ is holding its policy convention this weekend, and with that many Péquistes gathered in one location, there could be a mutiny or a coup.

Another poll is due out Saturday as well —  this one by Léger Marketing. If it confirms the PQ's slide, it could add momentum to a movement to oust Lisée.

It's a tempting prospect for sovereignists: ditch an unpopular leader who has promised to delay a referendum until a second mandate for a well-known figure who's made it clear that sovereignty is a priority for him.

But it wouldn't be easy.

Lisée received a 93 per cent vote of confidence at the last convention, and there is no official mechanism in place to replace him without a leadership race.

He would have to willingly hand over leadership of the party to Péladeau, just as Parizeau and Beaulieu did to Bouchard and Duceppe, respectively.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, right, and former leader Mario Beaulieu attend a news conference in Montreal, Sunday, August 2, 2015, where they officially launched their federal election campaign. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

PKP no saviour

What would really happen if the PQ switched riders at this point?

The PQ could get a bump up in the polls with Péladeau at the helm. But he's no saviour.  While he was leader, his poll numbers were disappointing.

The more likely effect of a PKP leadership is that he would undermine the CAQ.  

As a nationalist business leader, he would be popular with the same people who are now turning to François Legault and the CAQ's right-of-centre policies.

If the PQ eats away at the CAQ's lead, it could allow the Liberals under Couillard to come up the middle and eke out a victory.

For Péquistes now facing this quandary, the real question may be when do they give up on Lisée as a leader. Now? Or once they've lost the next election and have to rebuild a party that's been decimated?

This week's statement by Péladeau may have been designed to show he's waiting in the wings to take on the leadership once the dust has settled after an expected election defeat.

About the Author

Nancy Wood

Journalist

Nancy Wood is a veteran reporter and the host of Montreal News at 11.