The Action démocratique du Québec party predicts it will rebound from its crushing defeat by using its leadership race to return as a right-wing force in Quebec politics distinct from the federal Conservative Party.
More than 400 party delegates voted yesterday to speed up the election of a party leader to replace ADQ co-founder Mario Dumont who stepped down after a disappointing third-place showing in last December's vote.
Mr. Dumont's successor will be elected on Oct. 18, four months earlier than originally planned. The party is at a crossroads and needs to rebuild its credibility if it wants to avoid the political hinterlands, according to many delegates.
The party's former House leader, Stéphane Proulx, warned against moving too quickly in choosing a leader if the party lacks the resources to mount a "national" leadership race. The ADQ still carries a small debt and is reported to have 12,000 members.
"We don't have the necessary membership for a national leadership race. We don't have enough money to organize a national leadership race," Mr. Proulx told the delegates. "We must build; and I'll go even further and say we must rebuild our party. We are a bit like Rocky. We've fallen twice. If we want to get up again we have to be in good shape to win the fight. This isn't fiction, it's reality." The party isn't electing a class president, he reminded the delegates, but someone who must show they can become the premier of all Quebeckers.
Front-runner Gilles Taillon supported the move for an earlier vote. However, he also warned that a successful campaign is vital to the party's survival.
"Don't buy the coffin too early. We are still alive," Mr. Taillon told the cheering the delegates yesterday.
He later told reporters that the leadership race will constitute a decisive moment in re-establishing the party as a force to be reckoned with.
"It's a question of life or death. If the ADQ is unable to get through this race by building a solid party, the future will certainly be difficult," Mr. Taillon said.
The leadership candidates emphasized that the ADQ must keep its distance from the Stephen Harper Conservatives and underscored the importance of having a completely separate party. "As an autonomous party the ADQ cannot afford to become a branch plant of the federal Conservatives," Mr. Taillon said.
Conservative Senator Léo Housakos, an ADQ fundraiser, has been reportedly searching for a candidate who could form strong ties between the federal Tories and the ADQ.
"If Mr. Housakos wants to get involved and back a candidate, that's his right," said leadership candidate Éric Caire, one of the party's six members of the National Assembly, who remains close to the Tories. "I'm for building coalitions [with the Conservatives]on certain issues, but a merger is out of the question."
The members insisted on the need to build a strong organization that could bring back the 700,000 voters who abandoned the ADQ last December, after supporting them in the March of 2007 election that left Jean Charest's Liberals with the province's first minority government in more than a decade.
Despite all the attention placed on Mr. Dumont and the leadership candidates at the weekend party meeting, the man who stole the limelight was party MNA Gérard Deltell, whose picture was splashed on the front pages of Quebec City newspapers yesterday.
A political neophyte and former television journalist, Mr. Deltell was elected for the first time in December. He came under enormous pressure over the weekend to throw his hat into the ring for the leadership. Many members consider Mr. Deltell an ideal communicator, comparing him to Mr. Dumont, with a style and a newcomer's enthusiasm that could help rejuvenate the party.
Party members believe that the rival Parti Québécois may give the ADQ the boost it needs to build momentum among voters when PQ Leader Pauline Marois unveils her strategy on promoting sovereignty, emphasizing greater political autonomy for Quebec.
By stealing one of the ADQ's main elements of its platform, voters will prefer the real thing rather than an imitation, one party member said.
"There's only one autonomous party in Quebec and that's the ADQ," Mr. Taillon told the delegates.
Speaking on behalf of what he called the "silent majority," party president Mario Charpentier said that being autonomous also makes it appealing to right-of-centre Quebeckers seeking an alternative to the Liberals and the PQ.
"They want less government and more freedom of choice," Mr. Charpentier said, predicting that the ADQ will form a government within 10 years.