What could the Parti Québécois look like after Friday's vote?

Members begin voting today for the new leader of the Parti Québécois. The three leading candidates have pitched vastly different positions on sovereignty and identity - issues card-carrying PQ members hold near and dear to their hearts.

Leading candidates for leadership differ on key issues

Parti Québécois leadership candidates Paul St-Pierre-Plamondon, from the left, Jean-Francois Lisée, Alexandre Cloutier and Martine Ouellet join hands at the end of the last debate in Quebec City on Monday. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Members of the Parti Québécois will begin voting today for a new leader.

By Friday, when the electronic ballots of rank-and-file members have all been counted, we will know who will replace Pierre Karl Péladeau as head of the party.

In the last few weeks, the leadership race has morphed from a boring, ho-hum campaign to what some say has turned into the most hostile race in PQ history.

Part of that is due to the stakes.

The party is at a crossroads, receiving its worst electoral result since 1973 in the last election.

However, it is also because the three leading candidates have pitched vastly different positions on sovereignty and identity — issues that card-carrying PQ members hold near and dear to their hearts.

Here's a look at what a Parti Québécois led by each of the three front-runners could look like after Friday.

Alexandre Cloutier

Should he be elected, Alexandre Cloutier says he will not take a position on a referendum until after a three-person task force consults widely and reports back to him in a year. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Alexandre Cloutier started out in front and has spent the past month fending off Jean-François Lisée and Martine Ouellet.

His rivals have both increased their polling numbers by attacking the MNA for Lac-Saint-Jean, calling him the "establishment" candidate and taking him to task on the issues of sovereignty and identity.

If elected leader, Cloutier says he will immediately appoint a task force made up of an expert, an MNA and a party member to consult Quebecers on eight fundamental themes. That team would report back to him in a year.

Then, after consulting with the party membership – and six months before the fall 2018 election – Cloutier would announce his referendum plans.

Opponent Martine Ouellet has accused Cloutier of asking party members for a "blank cheque."

When it comes to religious symbols, Cloutier's position softened between the last leadership race and this one, something which Lisée used as ammunition to attack the perceived front-runner.

Cloutier says he would adopt the Bouchard-Taylor Commission's recommendation that public servants in positions of authority, such as police officers and judges, be prohibited from wearing religious symbols.

Under his leadership, the PQ would oppose the Couillard government's religious neutrality bill, which would prohibit anyone whose face is covered from giving or receiving public services, such as obtaining a driver's licence.

Jean-François Lisée

Jean-Francois Lisée says the PQ would not hold a referendum in its first term, should he be elected leader. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Jean-François Lisée, the MNA for Rosemont in Montreal, has momentum heading into the vote.

Lisée has successfully differentiated himself from both Cloutier and Ouellet on the issue of sovereignty. If he becomes leader, he says another referendum on independence will be off the table, for the time being.

He sees the PQ's main task as beating the Liberals in 2018. This could pose a problem for Premier Philippe Couillard in the short term, because Couillard's strongest argument against the PQ has been the threat of another referendum.

If the PQ wins the next election under his leadership, Lisée says he will focus on governing, with an eye to a referendum after winning a second election in 2022.

By adopting this strategy, Lisée is counting on appealing to the greatest number of party members: both those who want a leader who will commit to a referendum timeline, even one with a far-off date, and those who want getting rid of the Liberals to be the PQ's priority.

On the issue of identity, Lisée says the PQ would support the Couillard government's religious neutrality bill, calling it a step in the right direction.

He supports prohibiting civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols and has mused about gradually extending that to daycare workers.

He's also said he would encourage all civil servants to refrain from wearing any religious symbols, without imposing any deadlines or sanctions if they failed to comply.

Martine Ouellet

Martine Ouellet says she would hold an independence referendum in her first mandate if she becomes PQ leader. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Under the MNA for Vachon, independence would become the priority for the Parti Québécois.

Martine Ouellet made this the single issue in her leadership campaign, and if she becomes leader and then premier, she says she would hold a referendum within her first mandate.

Throughout the campaign, she has criticized not only her opponents, but also her caucus, for putting talk of independence and a referendum on the back burner.

Ouellet has sat out the vicious identity debate between Lisée and Cloutier, at one point accusing her two opponents of  leaving her out of the debate on purpose in order to make it a two-person race.

Her platform contends that a secular state is "vital," but she does not wade further into some of the hot-button topics, such as clothing and religious symbols. This makes it hard to say where she would take the party on that front.

A request by CBC for more information on that front has gone unanswered.

Paul St-Pierre Plamondon

Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, a longshot in the race, is a Montreal lawyer. (Radio-Canada)

Paul St-Pierre Plamondon is a longshot in the leadership race. 

The 39-year-old Montreal lawyer, educated at McGill and Oxford universities, is something of an outsider.

He's best known for his 2014 book Les orphelins politiques, in which he made the case that young Quebecers don't see their values articulated by any of the current political parties.

He has argued for the PQ to return to its social democratic roots.


Ryan Hicks is in his final year as a law student at McGill University and is a former Quebec political correspondent for the CBC. In 2018, he won the Amnesty International Media Award for his reporting from Guatemala about the root causes of migration from Central America to the United States.