Duceppe quits as Bloc Quebecois leader

MONTREAL — During a party convention in February, Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe made a declaration that didn’t seem too far off base at the time.

Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe speaks to supporters at the Bloc federal election night headquarters in Montreal

Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe speaks to supporters at the Bloc federal election night headquarters in Montreal

MONTREAL — During a party convention in February, Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe made a declaration that didn’t seem too far off base at the time.

The veteran politician, coming off a near-unanimous vote of confidence from his party, stated the NDP couldn’t make a difference in Quebec.

Duceppe couldn’t have been more wrong.

And, ultimately, the NDP’s blowout victory in Quebec on Monday put an end to Duceppe’s 14-year leadership of the sovereigntist party.

Voters handed Duceppe his worst showing ever in his sixth campaign as leader.

The Bloc was wiped off the electoral map, winning fewer than five seats — an incredible freefall from the 49 they won in 2008.

Duceppe, himself, went down to defeat in the Montreal riding he had represented since 1990.

The debacle means the Bloc risks losing its party status. It also leaves its future in limbo.

The Bloc is to meet in the coming days to deal with the leadership issue. A dozen seats are necessary to retain official status in the House of Commons, and the party will have even more limited resources.

A shell-shocked Duceppe told supporters Monday it was obvious Quebecers wanted something else.

“Those who chose the NDP wanted to give one last chance to a federalist party in Quebec,” he said, adding the Tories and Liberals also lost out in the province.

“Mr. Layton promised to show a lot of openness. Quebecers now have a right to expect change, results, a concrete recognition of the Quebec nation.

“All advancement of Quebec will be welcome.”

Duceppe, 63, was the first-ever Bloc MP in 1990 and has been at the helm of the party since 1997. But he proved to be another victim of the NDP blitzkrieg in Quebec, losing in his own riding to Helene Laverdiere.

The Bloc had won an average of 48 seats in the six previous elections — the previous lowest total coming in 2000, when it won 38.

In 2008, it garnered 38.1 per cent of the popular vote. On Monday, that number plummeted to an anemic 23 per cent — a historic low for the party that had never seen that number dip below 37.9.

The party’s heaviest hitters lost out to inexperienced NDP candidates with scant resources.

Duceppe took responsibility for the disastrous showing, promptly quitting, but not before adding a parting shot: “I leave you, but others will follow right until Quebec becomes a nation.”

In the meantime, stunned candidates were also trying to understand what went wrong.

“My guess is as good as yours,” said Vivian Barbot, a former MP who lost for a second time to Liberal Justin Trudeau in a Montreal riding.

“We just see that the results are not very good for us and there’s no way we can explain it except that in the last couple of weeks, things have changed drastically and that’s what we’re seeing now.”

One political scientist said Monday the Bloc’s tired, repetitive campaign failed to capture the imagination of Quebecers this time as readily as in the past.

A 2004 campaign centred on a scandal-plagued Liberal government, while the Bloc focused its efforts in 2006 and 2008 on thwarting a Conservative majority. The 2011 campaign was much of the same.

“The platform and positioning of the Bloc hasn’t changed much in the last six federal elections with Duceppe at the helm of the party (since 1997) and there may be a fatigue factor as far as the electorate is concerned,” said Pierre Anctil, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa, said in an interview.

“Duceppe hasn’t added much to his approach in this election and this lack of flexibility may be causing some of the disenchantment.”

Anctil also pointed to Duceppe’s more radical language, which may have turned off some soft nationalists. Teaming up with the Parti Quebecois and its leader, Pauline Marois, at the recent PQ policy convention, didn’t help, he said.

Going into this campaign, Duceppe’s Bloc appeared to be cruising to a victory in as many as 50 of the province’s 75 ridings. That was until the NDP gained steam.

As it became clear the NDP poll numbers were no aberration, the Bloc trotted out sovereigntist legend Jacques Parizeau in an attempt to stem the tide.

And just this past weekend, Marois campaigned with Duceppe, imploring PQ members to support their political cousins.

Duceppe admitted during the final week of the campaign that he’d underestimated the NDP surge as most polls suggested the federalist party was leading handily.

One former MP, Suzanne Tremblay, criticized Duceppe as being “constipated” during the campaign, describing his performance as “dreadful.”

Then in an open letter to Montreal La Presse, two former Bloc Quebecois organizers urged sovereigntists to get on the NDP train.