Montreal

After a dismal election result, what does the future hold for the Parti Québécois?

The sovereigntist party is in shambles after it didn't retain official party status in the election Monday night, and its leader, Jean-François Lisée, announced he would be stepping down after losing his own seat.

The sovereigntist party didn't retain official party status, and leader Jean-François Lisée is stepping down

A Parti Québécois supporter looks on in Montreal as the results come in on election night. The party won a paltry nine seats. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

There is a saying in French that when things are going badly, sauvons les meubles — save the furniture.

The Parti Québécois, longtime guardian of the sovereigntist dream, saved very little of its furniture in the flames of its 2018 election campaign.

Not even the Montreal seat previously held by the party's leader, Jean-François Lisée, survived the blaze.

The party earned 17.1 per cent of the popular vote and a paltry nine seats — not enough for the PQ to retain official party status — on Monday night.

"I'm proud, but I'm also obviously sad of the result on the national level," said Catherine Fournier, who was one of the few successful PQ candidates Monday night.

She was elected in the Marie-Victorin riding in Longueuil, Que., a South Shore suburb of Montreal.

"I thought that we could really help Quebec go forward with all our ideas, our program, our team, our leader — but now Quebecers have made their choice so we have to respect that," Fournier told CBC News.

PQ, Québec Solidaire see similar results differently

Though its performance was roughly even with its sovereigntist rival, Québec Solidaire, the two parties are following opposite trajectories.

QS won 10 seats this election — tripling its previous number of seats for the best showing in its history — and won for the first time in ridings off the island of Montreal.

The upstart, left-wing party commands a large share of the youth vote and its popularity was already growing steadily before jumping leaps and bounds in Monday's vote. 

The PQ, on the other hand, has an aging base. Its performance in this year's election was its worst in more than four decades.

With a new low in this election, the party will face yet another period of soul searching, a process that has almost become routine in recent years.

Québec Solidaire co-spokesperson Manon Massé told supporters in Montreal that the election of 10 QS candidates "gives the signal for what will come in the next election." (Peter McCabe/Canadian Press )

Lisée's campaign faltered

For a moment, at the outset of the campaign, it appeared as though Lisée — an adviser to former PQ premiers Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard — would be able to turn back time.

Indeed, the party tried to do so visually by opting for a distinctly retro design for its campaign bus.

But Lisée also managed to whip a certain amount of enthusiasm with attention-grabbing proposals; for example, he promised a car-sharing app that would work like the dating app Tinder.

He delivered a couple of virtuoso debate performances. But in the third and final debate, he launched a desperate attack on Manon Massé, the co-spokesperson of Québec Solidaire.

Parti Québécois Leader Jean-Francois Lisée announced he would be stepping down as the party's leader after he failed to secure his seat in Rosemont. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

It left many in the party uncomfortable. His vice-leader, Véronique Hivon, spoke out publicly against the anti-QS strategy.

The PQ tanked at the polls and Lisée began to taking liberties on the campaign trail.

He attempted an impression of François Legault, the Coalition Avenir Québec leader and premier-elect, in some of his speeches.

At another, he asked the audience to take part in a sort of mindfulness experiment, encouraging them to visualize a PQ victory.

I take great responsibility for today's results.- Jean-François Lisée

By the time the colourful campaign bus rolled back into Montreal on Monday, it had lost its lustre.

On Monday night, Lisée said he would be stepping down as the party's leader.

"The verdict in Rosemont puts an end to the best job I've ever held, that of leader of the Parti Québécois," he said.

"I'll be by your side for the next battles, always. I take great responsibility for today's results."

Hivon to take over

In the short term, it is almost certain Hivon will take over leadership of the party.

Younger, well-liked and less partisan, she could help recover some of the support the party lost to QS.

But the PQ's problems go well beyond leadership.

In the short term, it is almost certain Véronique Hivon, right, will take over leadership of the party. (Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press)

Two political scientists predicted recently that the party would disappear by 2034.

The argument was based on the fact that the PQ was simply not attracting younger voters. Founded in 1968, the party's base is still largely baby boomers.

The authors, Valérie-Anne Mahéo of the Université de Montréal and Éric Bélanger of McGill, argued that by staking a hard line on identity issues — exemplified with the charter of values — it fell out of line with the values of younger Quebecers.

In his concession speech Monday night, Lisée said he had tried to get QS to agree to a merger with the PQ two years ago. He said the offer was sincere, and if QS had accepted, Monday night's results would have been very different.

A future for sovereignty?

Then there is the elephant in the room: sovereignty.

Polls repeatedly suggest that support for independence is now below 40 per cent, and even less among youth.

QS's success in this election will forestall any immediate talks about the end of the sovereigntist dream.

But it raises the question of whether sovereignty has to embrace a more cosmopolitan and progressive approach if it wants to survive.

And if another provincial party proves a more effective standard bearer of the ideal, many will ask if the PQ still needs to exist at all.

With files from CBC Montreal's Simon Nakonechny