The perils of Pauline Marois

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Parti Québecois leader Pauline Marois has all the qualities necessary to be premier of Quebec. First elected in 1981, Mme. Marois has been minister of finance and of health, and has held other significant ministerial positions. Not many figures in Canadian political history have been as well prepared as Marois to become head of government.

All she is lacking is one thing. Her party does not hold the majority of seats in the national assembly.

While the general election is a few years away, the party constitution mandates a vote of confidence in its leader that will come next April. The impending leadership ballot has brought forward internal challenges to Marois, from the left, right and centre, which have little to do with her ability to govern or lead the party to victory in the next election.

After the electoral failure of the previous PQ leader, André Boisclair, Marois was drafted to replace him. She set out two objectives. First, the PQ had to build a strong social democratic option for Quebec. Second, as leader she would decide the timetable for a future referendum on sovereignty. Marois understood that being tied to a party pledge to hold a referendum on sovereignty in the first mandate of a future PQ government severely limited its chances to win another election.

An opposition party should have one big advantage over an incumbent government: it does not have to run on its record. Turning the campaign focus onto the opposition pledge to hold a third referendum on sovereignty would throw away the main electoral advantage of the PQ: it is not the Quebec Liberal Party.

The governing Liberal Party of Quebec is in deep trouble. After three straight electoral mandates (one a minority win) it has worn out its welcome with Francophone voters: only one in four support it. A series of scandals involving kickbacks in construction contracts, and construction cost overruns have tarnished the government. Liberal Premier Jean Charest has lost personal credibility, and popularity by refusing to open an inquiry into the construction industry.

When suggestions of political favouritism in judicial nominations were raised by former Justice Minister Marc Bellemare, Charest did appoint a commission to investigate the complaints. The commission (headed by the former Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache) heard evidence the premier's office screened potential appointments to the bench looking for Liberal backers... from the premiers assistant who did the screening. Polls show the PQ would form the next government, if an election were to be held now.

With Liberals support falling, the opposition PQ should be preparing its social democratic option, readying itself to take power and govern. Instead of cheering on the PQ leader, party activists are raising questions about the commitment of Pauline Marois to sovereignty.

The PQ has a diehard wing which believes the real reason the party exists is to bring political independence to Quebec. Every leader is closely watched to see if they live up to the desire to make sovereignty the main theme of the party. Marois, like every other leader before her including founder René Lévesque, cannot live up to this expectation.

The PQ has a business-friendly right wing. Currently, former PQ minister François Légault is rumoured ready to start a new political movement of the centre-right (his way of getting rid of the sovereignist diehards) which would attack deficit spending, raise Hydro and tuition rates, and put sovereignty aside for now. It is a measure of the unhappiness of the Quebec electorate with both the Liberals, and the sovereignist option of the PQ, that when Legault's yet-to-be-created party is included in opinion surveys, it comes out ahead of both the main contenders.

Not only does Marois have to contend with challenges from the left and the right, her public critiques include two former PQ premiers, Bernard Landry, and Jacques Parizeau, who are unhappy she has not been pushing sovereignty with more energy.

Parizeau points to the "inspiring" work done by Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe in traveling to Washington carrying the sovereignist message, leading to speculation that Duceppe stands ready to pick up the torch, if internal opposition succeeds in dislodging Marois from the leadership by an internal vote, as it once did Landry.

The renewed attention to sovereignty by Parizeau, Landry and Duceppe is not just due to an anticipated PQ win over the Charest Liberals. The obvious weaknesses in the government and opposition parties in Ottawa creates new found boldness by the sovereignist leadership. National polls show Duceppe with increased support in Quebec, and in a position to add another 10 seats in the next election.

To hold on to her job, Pauline Marois does not just have to show she can lead the party to victory and become the first woman premier of Quebec. She has to convince her party that it matters the PQ win the next election.

Duncan Cameron writes weekly on politics and is president of


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