BQ Leader Duceppe Eyes PQ Leadership

At first, the spectacle last weekend of Quebec's two main separatist leaders feuding over the rudder on their sinking ship looked like the kind of mildly entertaining political slapstick that has become a trademark of Péquiste politics over the years.

BQ Leader Duceppe Eyes PQ Leadership

At first, the spectacle last weekend of Quebec's two main separatist leaders feuding over the rudder on their sinking ship looked like the kind of mildly entertaining political slapstick that has become a trademark of Péquiste politics over the years. But then on Tuesday, the fresh political blood spilled on the floor of the province's National Assembly showed that the melodrama was, in fact, a dark tragedy unfolding in real life for the battered, struggling separatist forces.

PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS leader André Boisclair took one of the several guns pointed at his head, and pulled the trigger himself. Eighteen months after conquering a crowded field to take the PQ leadership, Boisclair, 41, resigned as head of the party just hours before battered PQ MNAs limped into their seats - out of the way, under the media bleachers, as befits a third party - in the historic session that opened this week under a Liberal minority government. Boisclair was already bleeding from a million cuts, and was left with no option but to resign - crocodile tears shed by his caucus notwithstanding. He had lost his last-ditch supporters after attacking BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS leader Gilles DUCEPPE, telling him to back off attempts at undermining his leadership. Duceppe reportedly went ballistic over the attack - not the first skirmish between the two. For public consumption, he said repeatedly he would not even so much as think of coming to Quebec City as long as Boisclair was there.

With Boisclair now gone, Duceppe is left contemplating a depressing dilemma: stay put in Ottawa, and risk taking the same kind of drubbing in the next federal election that Quebec voters gave the PQ in the last provincial one; or take charge of a provincial party that is, by all accounts, broke, demoralized and divided - a spent force in need of a massive overhaul, if not already beyond repair. "I don't see how the situation could get any worse than this," a former PQ apparatchik with links to the Bloc told Maclean's, shortly after Boisclair's resignation.

Boisclair had good reasons to be paranoid over shenanigans happening with the Bloc, sources said, but Duceppe had equally good reasons to be upset by Boisclair's remarks. There was a cabal, indeed, but it was run mostly by Péquistes sending signals that Duceppe could be needed in Quebec City soon. By launching his fragmentation bomb, and then resigning, Boisclair was practising what the French call la politique du pire - worsening an already rotten situation in order to make radical reforms unavoidable.

Some PQ members think a fresh new leader with a high profile - say, a Gilles Duceppe - is all they need to get back on the sunny side of the street. But others say leadership is only a small part of their problem, and that the party needs serious time to rethink and retool if it wants to become relevant and popular ever again. "Mr. Boisclair's departure doesn't solve any of our problems. And with a new leader, we'll have solved only a small fraction of these," PQ MNA Sylvain Simard says. "We must admit we have a tremendous amount of work to do, just to be able to reconnect with the public."

Party members say the PQ is choking from an excess of democracy. Yves Duhaime, a former PQ cabinet minister who ran against Duceppe for the Bloc leadership, points out that "Boisclair has been elected with a majority on the first round in a vote of all party members, but, as leader, had no control over who would chair the party, staff its executive committee, even over who should be a candidate and where." These decisions belong to the membership, the riding associations, or their presidents - to the apparatchiks, known to snack on their leaders as soon as they stray from the orthodoxy.

And there is, of course, that orthodoxy. What's a separatist party to do when only a minority of voters support separation? Right now, the hot political commodities in Quebec have emerged from the centre of what used to be the separatist vs. centralist divide. The federal Conservatives, preaching a "federalism of openness," are organizing, discreetly but massively, in the province, and Mario Dumont's Action démocratique du Québec is all the rage with its stance of "assertiveness for Quebec but no referendum."

In this juncture, what the separatists need may not be so much a firebrand leader as a keeper of the flame. A very patient one.

Maclean's May 21, 2007