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Pierre Karl Péladeau on March 9 at the announcement of his candidacy. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Pierre Karl Péladeau on March 9 at the announcement of his candidacy. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Gesture designed to seal PQ victory derailed the campaign Add to ...

The pro-sovereignty speech was carefully planned. The raised fist as he delivered it – not so much.

Pierre Karl Péladeau’s announcement on March 9 that he was running as a Parti Québécois candidate is a rare electoral turning point that can be encapsulated in a single picture. Instead of a knock-out punch, the media magnate’s improvised decision to punch the air as he professed his ambition to “make Quebec a country” became a self-inflicted blow for the PQ, party sources said.

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The moment was designed to seal a PQ majority, but it derailed at least the first half of Leader Pauline Marois’ campaign and created negative momentum the party could never reverse. While Mr. Péladeau comfortably won his seat in St-Jérôme, the PQ lost the election.

On Tuesday evening, he vowed to serve his supporters with passion and integrity. “You can count on me,” Mr. Péladeau said.

Inside party circles, the feeling was that Mr. Péladeau’s recruitment as a star candidate would solidify the notion that the PQ was presenting the strongest roster of potential ministers to the electorate. But his arrival put the issue of Quebec independence at the centre of the campaign, to the delight of rivals who quickly raised the spectre of a third referendum on sovereignty.

Mostly, however, it highlighted Ms. Marois’ challenges as a campaigner as she spent the ensuing days discussing the nitty-gritty details of an independent Quebec, including hypothetical issues such as its currency and tourism policy.

“Pierre Karl didn’t talk about a referendum, he only said that, like all PQ candidates, he wanted to fight for a country,” pollster Jean-Marc Léger said. “For the first time, however, voters felt it could become a reality because someone of his stature was delivering the message.”

The polls confirmed that Mr. Péladeau was a polarizing figure in Quebec, earning nearly as many negative ratings as positive ones. However, the worst news for the PQ came as the polls started suggesting that it was losing supporters to the Quebec Liberals and the CAQ, especially among francophone voters, who are an overwhelming majority in many ridings.

The PQ campaign suddenly looked like it was distraught, making mistakes and improvising. At one point, a reporter addressed a question to Mr. Péladeau, who was standing behind Ms. Marois at a news conference. Mr. Péladeau could have stayed behind Ms. Marois, but he stepped forward. Then Ms. Marois decided to take the question. The image of her pushing Mr. Péladeau back became another defining moment.

Still, PQ insiders said Mr. Péladeau has been a good soldier, showing a clear love for politics, meeting supporters and doing media interviews across the province. He is popular with many sovereigntists.

For now, Mr. Péladeau will be a rookie politician on the opposition benches. His politics remain vague, because he brought a right-wing economic viewpoint to a party known for its progressive policy positions.

Past associates said that, at the helm of Québecor, Mr. Péladeau showed contradictory political instincts. After the federal Conservatives were elected in 2006, Mr. Péladeau and his lobbyists made regular stops in Ottawa’s corridors of power. Known as a foe of labour unions, Mr. Péladeau came off as a libertarian and an advocate for small government at the same time as he urged government action that would favour Québecor’s interests.

The 52-year-old will eventually have to clarify his political vision, especially if he decides – as is expected – to run for PQ leader. In his victory speech, he vowed to fight to protect French in Quebec and to defend entrepreneurs vigorously.

“Working to strengthen Quebec’s economy means working to make it more feasible to have Quebec sovereignty,” he told his cheering supporters.

According to Mr. Léger, Mr. Péladeau will likely force the sovereignty movement to speak clearly about its ambitions, after nearly two decades of vague promises to hold another referendum only if the odds of victory are high.

“One thing is certain, Pierre Karl Péladeau will change the PQ,” Mr. Léger said.

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