Hébert: Is Parti Québécois close to running on empty?

With only months to go to a fall Quebec election, some of the Parti Québécois’ best and brightest are rushing for the exit.

On Tuesday, three popular sovereigntist members of the national assembly announced they would not seek re-election in October. The list of those who will watch from the sidelines as Jean-François Lisée fights his first election campaign as leader is expected to grow.

To a man and a woman, those departing insist they had no quarrels with their latest leader. Instead they all claim to have lost the fire in their bellies.

Some of those who are taking their leave from politics have served in the national assembly for decades. A credible case can be made that they are suffering from battle fatigue and that the latter is exacerbated by the prospect of a return to the opposition benches next fall.

But the list of those leaving also includes 40-year-old Alexandre Cloutier, a rare, bright young star in a party that has become too dependent for its own good on the support of aging baby boomers.

The next question for the PQ to struggle with is whether a leader who fails to motivate his caucus is liable to do well in a general election.

The year-end polls on Quebec voting intentions put the PQ in third place, far behind the leading Coalition Avenir Québec and the ruling Liberals.

Lisée, who has been leader for little more than a year, has so far failed to make a positive impression on most voters.

On his watch, PQ fortunes have declined steadily to the point that there is now open speculation that Quebec’s premier sovereigntist party is in a death spiral.

In that perspective, there are those who see the departing Cloutier as Quebec’s version of Emmanuel Macron – the French president who broke the mould of France’s politics by leading a breakaway movement to power.

No one seems to believe the repeat leadership candidate is done with politics, starting with his mother, who is convinced her son has not given up on his ambition to become premier.

What is certain is that with Cloutier and others sitting out the next campaign, the PQ is poised to enter an uphill election campaign under an unpopular leader backed by the party’s weakest-ever team of incumbents.

To measure just how weak that team has become, consider that of the front-line candidates who sought to succeed Pauline Marois after she led the party to defeat four years ago, only Lisée will be on the ballot next fall.

Pierre Karl Péladeau – the media tycoon who was Marois’ immediate successor – led the party for less than a year before abruptly leaving politics for family reasons.

Bernard Drainville – the former lead minister on the controversial secularism charter – is now ensconced in the pundit niche that used to be occupied by the late Jean Lapierre.

Martine Ouellet has moved on to the Bloc Québécois. She has been leading the federal party – if you can call it that – from an independent seat in the national assembly.

On Tuesday, Lisée put a brave face on the imminent departure of his prominent battle-tested colleagues, pointing out that more than half a dozen Liberal incumbents are also contemplating retirement.

But it is the PQ that polls suggest is at risk of being edged out of the next election battle and potentially out of Quebec’s political mainstream.

The party used to be the province’s progressive beacon and a hotbed of innovative social policies. But over the past decade, it has become increasingly preoccupied with being overtaken on the right by the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ).

It was to fend off the CAQ that the PQ came up with the secularism charter and that only managed to create deep divisions within the party’s own ranks. Cloutier, for one, had no time for the kind of identity politics promoted by Marois and Lisée. The adventure also went a long way to cut the PQ off from the younger cohort of voters.

To wit: It was not that long ago that a critical number of federalist voters would disregard the PQ’s sovereignty creed to support its progressive agenda. These days, the reverse is happening, with scores of otherwise sovereigntist voters casting ballots for federal parties such as the NDP and, more recently, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals on account of their progressive policies.

It is undoubtedly hard to have the stomach for an election battle when one’s party is running on empty.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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