Parti Québécois's referendum woes go deeper than Pierre Karl Péladeau

The PQ's slide over the issue of a possible referendum, and Pauline Marois's inability to extinguish that fire, point to internal splits in the party over her leadership.

Pauline Marois' steady slide in opinion polls goes back to fundamental splits in the party

Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois looks on as Pierre Karl Péladeau expresses his hopes for an independent Quebec during a press in Saint Jérôme, Que. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

It was perhaps the most memorable and defining moment of the Quebec election campaign so far: media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau thrusting his right fist in the air as he announces he will run as a candidate for the Parti Québécois, and saying he wants to "make a country of Quebec."

At first, PKP's candidacy and fervent pro-sovereignty declaration appeared to be the last piece in the PQ's puzzle of election success.

Pauline Marois had kicked off the campaign just a few days earlier leading in the polls. Now, she had a successful business magnate and household name championing Quebec independence at her side.

But then, everything went wrong.

Platform plans sidelined

The PQ's intended election strategy of focusing on the secular charter and the economy was sidelined as attention turned to referendum timing.

Just as quickly as that possibility became the dominant theme of the campaign, Pauline Marois's support appeared to start eroding, to the point the Liberals may even form a majority government only 18 months after losing power amid allegations of corruption.

The fear of even a possible referendum has become an obvious hindrance to the PQ's fortunes. 

So last Friday, one of the party's most recognizable faces, former journalist Jean-François Lisée, said he is "struck" by the reaction of Quebecers, and says he has "rarely been so pessimistic" about the possibility of holding a referendum if the PQ is re-elected.

Jean-François Lisée admitted Quebecers taste for a referendum isn't there right now. (Radio-Canada)

"We can clearly see that [Quebecers] are not ready, and honestly, as you know, I have always been optimistic about sovereignty, and have rarely felt as pessimistic as I do right now," Lisée told reporters in French.

Even Péladeau himself has since stated his primary goal is the "economic independence" of Quebec. The rest can wait until a later date.

In other words, without Marois having to say it herself, Lisée and Péladeau, hoping to ease voter anxiety, are strongly implying there won't be a referendum if the PQ forms a majority government.

And that may reveal the true weakness that led to the PQ's seemingly quick and easy slip in popularity.

Referendum conundrum 

Marois won't state publicly a referendum is unlikely, because the confidence she enjoys among party members wouldn't sustain it. Don't forget that less than three years ago, Marois faced a revolt when three members of her opposition bolted to sit as independents because she wasn't making a firm enough commitment to sovereignty.

Then two others quit for the opposite reason, saying the PQ's pro-independence stance was out of step with most Quebecers priorities.

The party was so rocked that MNA Bernard Drainville — who later, as a member of Marois's cabinet, drafted the contentious charter of values — made a dire prediction in a newspaper interview.

"The PQ could disappear," Drainville told Le Devoir. "Right now, the future [of the party] is called into question. We are very much at risk."

He pointed to the five defections, but also indicated the PQ would need to underscore the reasons for Quebec independence, and work more closely with other pro-sovereignty parties, including Québec Solidaire, and Option Nationale.

Marois has done the opposite. The PQ has refused to work in concert with those two parties, which have successfully siphoned off significant support, particularly among left-leaning voters.

'Concrete lady' survived, splits remain

Nevertheless, in the months that followed the mini-revolt, Marois managed to rally the party rank and file behind her, even gaining the moniker "Concrete Lady" for her tenacity in the face of seeming political disaster.

But the PQ's rapid discombobulation over the issue of a possible referendum, and Marois's inability to quickly extinguish that fire, points to the splits that remain inside the party over her leadership, partnerships with other pro-sovereignty forces, and how quickly a PQ government should move toward holding a third sovereignty referendum.


Tim Duboyce was a news editor at CBC Montreal. He was CBC's correspondent at the Quebec National Assembly from 2003 to 2013, and has covered five Quebec provincial election campaigns.