On the night of May 2, the most surprised politician in Canada wasn't Gilles Duceppe or Michael Ignatieff, even as they saw their parties melt before their eyes and their own seats vanish from under them. No, the most surprised was Jack Layton, awakening to the fact that Quebec voters had now given the NDP a majority of its seats and he was headed for Stornoway. Not much less surprised were the bulk of this Quebec NDP delegation, many of whom had never even given a thought to the notion of actually serving as an MP before election day.
Surreal? It conjures up the scene in the iconic 1972 movie, The Candidate, where Robert Redford's character - who ran for the U.S. Senate expecting to lose - turns to his political strategist in the midst of the victory celebration and asks, slightly alarmed: "What do we do now?"
What, exactly, does the NDP do now? How does it manoeuvre amid the wreckage of the political earthquake unleashed in Quebec?
One spin on the answer would be that NDP support in Quebec is based on the "exasperation" factor. " Il n'y a rien qui bouge" (nothing's happening) was the refrain, and the NDP and Mr. Layton were seen as a way out of the minority government impasse, a move away from those scary Conservatives, the moribund Liberals and a Bloc that wouldn't budge.
In this optic, Quebeckers turned to the unknown and untested NDP to try and do something new. But what? Many of the campaign promises that may have resonated with Quebeckers had to do with issues of a local or provincial nature.
Train new doctors? Sorry, that's provincial jurisdiction. Language laws? Ditto. Finding the "winning conditions" for federalism in Quebec? Most Quebeckers would interpret that as some form of asymmetric federalism, which the opposition in a majority Parliament can do nothing about. Worse still, this brand of federalism clearly is not one that most New Democrats outside Quebec would be comfortable with. This uneasy situation may well end up suffocating Jack Layton's aspirations in the long run.
There was something paradoxical in Mr. Layton's ability to reach out and connect with Quebec voters, even though some of his candidates didn't even try. This paradox is at the heart of another, more troubling, explanation of the election results that doesn't bode well for Quebec's political future. What if those tens of thousands of votes cast for unknown or phantom candidates were a reflection of just how disengaged Quebeckers have become from federal politics? What if NDP support in Quebec was just a "whatever" vote?
If this is the case, the NDP has overwhelming challenges. On the one hand, it has to make sure that its new Quebec MPs are able to connect with their constituents, who may know little, or care even less, about the party's platform. On the other hand, it has to speak for their needs and aspirations, when it is less and less clear what Quebeckers want in Canada.
In most Quebec ridings, the NDP has next to no organization and the shallowest of roots. Combine that with the possibility that many Quebeckers voted for them in a disengaged, almost casual, manner and you may end up with a majority of Quebec seats bearing mute witness in the House of Commons, a political vacuum growing wider by the day.
The implications of either of these scenarios are not pretty for the democratic process, and even starker for Mr. Layton, who runs the risk of becoming a one-election wonder in Quebec. At worst, this may end up further alienating Quebeckers from federal politics, making Quebec even more irrelevant for other Canadians, or Canada more irrelevant for Quebeckers.
Antonia Maioni is director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.