Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe are good friends. So are their respective parties. The New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois agree on most issues, and they're both close to the labour movement. But even the best of friends can become rivals. Last week, an Angus Reid poll showed that the NDP is making inroads in Quebec at the expense of the Bloc.
Mr. Duceppe used to focus his attacks on Stephen Harper, since the biggest fight in Quebec is waged between the Conservatives and the Bloc in the Quebec City area, while the Liberals are painfully holding on to their old bastions in a dozen of Montreal's predominantly anglophone ridings. Rumour, meanwhile, has it that, because of the bonne entente between the Bloc and the NDP, the Bloc is running a weak candidate in Outremont to help Thomas Mulcair, the lone NDP MP in Quebec and the right-hand man of Mr. Layton, keep his seat in what used to be a traditionally Liberal riding.
But the latest Angus Reid poll is a wake-up call for the Bloc. For the first time in its history, the NDP has become the second political force in Quebec, with 24-per-cent support - only 10 points behind the Bloc, which lost two points since the previous Angus Reid poll on March 24.
Moreover, Mr. Layton is more popular than ever in his native province: 36 per cent see him as the best choice for prime minister (against 15 per cent for Mr. Harper and 10 per cent for Michael Ignatieff).
A caveat: The survey was done on April 4 and 5. On April 3, Mr. Layton was a guest on the immensely popular CBC talk show Tout le monde en parle. This certainly gave a tremendous boost to Mr. Layton, who's already quite well-liked in the province thanks to his genial personality, easy smile and relaxed, colloquial brand of French, a language he learned on the streets of Montreal rather than at school.
Every time Mr. Layton visited La Presse to meet the editorial board, the consensus among the journalists was that he's the party leader with whom they'd like to go out for a drink, independent of their opinions on the NDP's policies. Indeed, Mr. Layton stands out among the party leaders as having the most pleasant personality. Mr. Harper exudes the warmth of a brick wall, Mr. Ignatieff is seen by many as haughty, and Mr. Duceppe is usually angry and sanctimonious.
Under Mr. Layton's leadership, the NDP has made significant gains in Quebec. It won 4.6 per cent of the vote in 2004 (up from 1.2 per cent in 2000), 7.5 per cent in 2006 and 12.2 per cent in 2008.
Mr. Layton has worked hard to dispel the hyper-centralizing image of the NDP. He has often pointed out that he's not opposed to seeing Quebec opt out (with financial compensation) of the social programs his party wants to set up throughout the country.
But the Dippers should hold their applause, since their party doesn't have the grassroots organization or the roster of good candidates it needs to capitalize on their leader's popularity. Mr. Mulcair probably will keep his Outremont seat - this will be a final blow to the Liberals, since this riding had been one of their safest. But it's unlikely that the NDP will win another seat in Quebec in this election.