Duceppe expected a coronation, not a convention

Bloc leader wanted to ride into Quebec as the great sovereignist rescuer

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The Gazette, Friday, May 11, 2007

On the Friday before the Quebec election, Stephen Harper and Lawrence Cannon ran into Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe on the floor of the House of Commons.

"The PQ is going to win 50 seats," Duceppe said, telling them he was quite confident the Pequistes were on the verge of forming a minority government.

Cannon, Harper's Quebec lieutenant, ducked into the government lobby and called a friend in the Quebec Liberal war room in Montreal.

"Go back there and bet him $500," Cannon was told. "There is no way the PQ can win."

For his part, Prime Minister Harper had said nothing, though he had different, and much better, information.

In the Liberals' internal polling, by Francois Decarie of Ipsos, they were never behind in the popular vote, and the PQ was always in third place in the last three weeks of the campaign.

But the point is that Duceppe believed the Parti Quebecois could form a government, even trailing the Liberals in the popular vote. After all, it happened once before, in 1998. He believed it because that's what he had been told. Andre Boisclair also believed it, for the same reason. So did senior PQ organizers, who were putting out the spin of 50 PQ seats over the final weekend of the campaign.

They were stepping on their numbers, and making best-case seat projections.

"It smells like 1976 all over again," Boisclair said in the final days of the campaign. He was so disconnected from reality that he even allowed himself to say that nothing would prevent a PQ minority government from presenting a referendum question, which would obviously have been defeated in the legislature.

The PQ actually thought it might be on the verge of an unexpected miracle, which might have accounted for Boisclair's shell-shocked appearance on election night. (He apparently wanted to resign on the spot, and was talked out of it, for the good of the party.)

No one in the sovereignist camp, either in Quebec or Ottawa, foresaw the disastrous possibility of the PQ finishing any worse than second.

In the PQ's worst-case scenario, they would save the furniture as official opposition. And when they got around to dumping Boisclair, which in the PQ wouldn't take long, Duceppe would be conveniently waiting in the wings.

Duceppe to the rescue. It all made sense, especially in the SOS calls that went out to Duceppe's Ottawa entourage in the closing days of the campaign.

Rather inconveniently, the PQ finished in third place, deprived of the perks and privileges of official opposition. This greatly diminished the value of the leadership prize. But it only intensified the party's haste to oust Boisclair. The calls to Duceppe multiplied. And while he was careful to say he wasn't initiating them, neither was he refusing them.

Something snapped in Boisclair during his ill-advised interview with Radio-Canada last weekend, in which he accused Duceppe of openly plotting to replace him, and invited him to stay in Ottawa, where he belonged. The push back, from all elements of the sovereignty movement, was predictable and decisive. Boisclair's position, never very strong since the election, suddenly became untenable. His announcement that he was quitting merely pre-empted a putsch.

But rather like Pierre Marc Johnson when he suddenly quit in 1987, Boisclair also put his presumed successor in a spot. In effect, he said to Duceppe: You want it, you got it. See ya.

In all the Duceppe camp's calculations, their leader would come to the PQ's rescue, much as Lucien Bouchard had following Jacques Parizeau's resignation in disgrace on the morrow of the 1995 resignation.

In other words, a coronation, not a contest.

No one apparently considered the possibility that Pauline Marois might consider another run at the leadership.

As it turns out, she isn't ruling it out. And having been passed over twice before in 1987 and 2005, she would begin from an obvious position of strength, as the favourite daughter of a party that doesn't appreciate being reminded by its federal cousins that, in the words of Bloc caucus president Louis Plamondon, it needs "a leader who will impose discipline and kick some people in the rear."

She also remembers that when Bouchard quit in 2001, Bernard Landry bluffed all his opponents, including her, out of the game by being the first one in it.

Duceppe remembers that, too. He'd best get a move on. It's not clear that he can beat her. But having started this game, he can hardly sit it out.

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