A losing battle at the polls
There was a time when members of the Parti Québécois could shrug off byelection losses by pointing out that the PQ always won big when it counted—at general election time. But with the party languishing in its lowest-ever position in the polls, Pequistes found it difficult to put a brave face on last week’s defeat in three more byelections, a triple setback that stretched the party’s inglorious losing streak to 21 straight—every byelection the PQ has called since taking power in 1976. “By God,” declared an exasperated Premier René Lévesque, “some day or other we hope to break that jinx.”
That may be an idle hope. The party
that won a landslide, 37-seat victory over the provincial Liberals in April, 1981, by electing 79 members to the national assembly has fallen so low in voters’ esteem that a poll published in Quebec City’s Le Soleil last month reported that the Liberals and their newly elected leader, Robert Bourassa, led the PQ by 69 per cent to 23 per cent. Although Lévesque can delay the next provincial election for as long as 22 months, such a vast Liberal lead bodes ill for the PQ’s chances in any intervening byelections.
Lévesque’s political position grew more perilous two weeks ago when delegates to the PQ’s biennial policy convention defied his wishes and voted to make Quebec independence the party’s major campaign theme in the next election. The controversial decision, which came
nine days before the byelections, caused a split in the PQ cabinet. Polls have always shown that popular support for the party tends to decline when the PQ emphasizes its goal of political independence, and the byelection results appeared to confirm the worst fears of some PQ strategists.
The PQ had not expected to win in Marguerite-Bourgeoys riding, a Liberal stronghold in southwest Montreal, and the party knew that it faced an uphill battle in Sauvé riding in Montreal’s north end, even though the constituency was held by a PQ minister, JacquesYvan Morin, deputy premier and minister of intergovernmental affairs.
But the party’s defeat in the middleclass riding of Marie-Victorin, next door to Lévesque’s own Taillon riding on Montreal’s south shore, was a harsh blow. The riding has been an acknowledged PQ bastion since the 1981 provincial election, when voters elected a former cabinet minister and veteran PQ activist, Pierre Marois, by a solid 10,394vote majority over his Liberal opponent. In addition, the riding was one of only 15 in the province to vote in favor of Quebec independence in the May, 1980, referendum. As a result, PQ organizers pinned their hopes on Marie-Victorin, sending Lévesque and half a dozen cabinet ministers into the fray in a near-desperate attempt to show that the PQ still had the ability to win.
Even the Liberals worried about the PQ effort. As the campaign wound down,
they insisted that the outcome was too close to call. But their concerns were misplaced. After the polls closed on Monday night it took only 40 minutes to confirm that Liberal Guy Pratt, 58, a priest turned businessman, was heading for a 3,891-vote victory over the PQ’s Pierre Nantel, a Longueuil municipal councillor and businessman. Pratt pointed to the PQ’s decision to emphasize its independence platform in the next election as the key factor in his victory. Said Pratt: “It just helped a lot of undecided voters make up their minds.” Although his frustration at the three defeats was obvious, Lévesque insisted that they were not a shock. “Obviously we’re quite disappointed,” he told reporters, “but we are getting used to disappointments of that kind in byelections.” But other key figures within the PQ seemed at a loss to explain what had happened. Justice Minister Pierre-Marc Johnson suggested that the low voter turnout in MarieVictorin—55 per cent compared with 80 per cent in the last provincial election—meant that PQ supporters had not voted.
Given the latest verdicts on the PQ, Liberal party members and Pequistes alike were left to wonder whether the only way that the ruling party might conceivably resurrect itself before the next election would be under a new leader. There is no shortage of possible suc| cessors. Lévesque him5 self appears to be groom| ing Johnson for the job, 2 but Jacques Parizeau, his outspoken, longtime finance minister, and External Trade Minister Bernard Landry would almost certainly be candidates as well. For his part, Lévesque has shown no sign of wanting to retire, though he did appear to hint last week that he might at least be considering the possibility. At a press conference in Quebec City, Lévesque announced that his government intended to introduce proportional representation—a system that ties the number of seats won by a party to its percentage of popular vote —before the next provincial election and conceded that his own position might be an issue within the party. The leadership “is one of the things that has to be assessed,” Lévesque admitted, adding with tantalizing ambiguity that “definitely, throughout the fall, and I hope in 1985,1 see no reason to leave the ship.” -LEWIS HARRIS in Montreal.