Montreal·Analysis

Boomers or gen Y: The Parti Quebecois' generational dilemma

Let's be honest: the Parti Québécois leadership race was, for several months, boring. But with voting for a new leader to begin Wednesday, clear battle lines have now been drawn. The party can choose between the baby boomers or generation Y.

As PQ gets set to choose new leader, it faces tough questions about party's future

Parti Quebecois leadership candidates Alexandre Cloutier, left, and Jean-Francois Lisée shake hands as fellow candidate Martine Ouellet looks on following a leadership debate in Montreal, Sunday, September 25, 2016. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Let's be honest: the Parti Québécois leadership race was, for several months, boring.

In the wake of Pierre Karl Péladeau's resignation, the candidates seemed to politely tip-toe around each other. Policy disagreements were few and the tone cordial.

But the final weeks of the campaign have been anything but boring.​ Candidates have, variously, accused each other of bullying, cozying up to Islamists and being sheltered by the party establishment.

As voting gets underway Wednesday, with the new leader announced Friday, the battle lines have never been clearer, especially between the two front-runners.

Veteran vs. boy wonder

Jean-François Lisée, veteran of the 1995 referendum, has surged in recent polls to within striking distance of Alexandre Cloutier, the party's boy wonder.

The surge has coincided with a shift in Lisée's campaign strategy toward identity politics. He's mused about banning the burka in public, tried to link Cloutier to a controversial imam and criticized Quebec's current immigration levels. 

Cloutier, barely old enough to vote in 1995, has struck a more inclusive tone. Unlike Lisée, he backs the approach to accommodation outlined in the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor Commission report. He's also called for a better relationship with Quebec's Aborginal communities.   

Clamouring for attention amid their slug-fest is Martine Ouellet. She's waged a policy-heavy campaign, but has stood out more for her commitment to holding a referendum in the first mandate of a PQ government. 

If recent polls are accurate, she stands little chance of winning the contest. But with the party using a preferential ballot, it is the second choice of her supporters that will ultimately break the deadlock between Cloutier and Lisée.

Alexandre Cloutier greets students as he arrives for a leadership debate at the University of Montreal last month. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Gone by 2034?

One reason the choice facing PQ voters is so stark, and so interesting to outsiders, is that Cloutier and Lisée represent more than just warring camps. 

They represent radically different visions of the party's future. Or whether the party has a future at all. 

A study out of McGill University has been making the rounds over the past few weeks, grabbing headlines for its prediction that the PQ, as a generational party, will disappear by 2034.

The study, by Valérie-Anne Mahéo and Éric Bélanger, parses results of a survey taken just after the 2014 election, which not only saw the PQ lose its minority government, but also get handed its worst-ever electoral result. 

Bélanger and Mahéo note that PQ support is strongest among baby boomers (Quebecers born before 1960) and weakest among generation Y (Quebecers born between 1980-1994). 

As the demographic weight of one generation is replaced by another, the authors predict the PQ will face increasing difficulties at the ballot box.

A study out of McGill University predicts the PQ could disappear by 2034 if it isn't able to engage younger voters. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

A dilemma, summarized

That, though, is only part of the story the study tells. It also offers a nuanced portrait of the issues that motivate different generations of voters. 

Generation Y, Bélanger and Mahéo find, are more left wing, less excited by sovereignty and most importantly, were left cold by the PQ's so-called charter of values, one of the central planks of the party's 2014 platform.

Lisée, in raising immigration and identity issues again, is likely targeting an older PQ voter. Baby boomers were strong supporters of the values charter, and Lisée was one of its chief spokesman in the Marois government. 

Polls suggest Jean-Francois Lisée has pulled within striking distance of Alexandre Cloutier. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

From a strategic point of view, Lisée's approach has the advantage of appealing to a generation known for its continued engagement with party politics and the act of voting itself.

Generation Y, by contrast, was the demographic group that voted the least in the 2014 election, according to the Bélanger-Mahéo study.

This then is the dilemma facing PQ members as they choose their next leader:

On the one hand, a sharp-looking young fellow, promising to realign the party to reflect the views of the generation whose support it needs to stave off extinction. 

On the other hand, a throwback from the PQ's glory days, someone who can shore up support among the party's most dedicated followers at a moment when it can ill afford to lose them.

The choice is between safeguarding their position at present, or moving to secure a future. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

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