The NDP has long been an afterthought in Quebec politics.
But the latest public opinion poll puts the party in second place in the province, ahead of the Liberals and Conservatives as the first choice among federalist parties. The NDP's latest choice of candidates - two former union bosses and a lawyer fighting uranium exploration - also shows the extent to which it is trying to challenge the Bloc Québécois for the hearts of left-leaning Quebeckers.
The NDP's positioning is not a coincidence, as economic issues are front and centre in Quebec in the lead-up to Tuesday's tabling of the federal budget.
Many experts predict that few seats will change hands in the province in the next election, but the NDP is hoping to create a thirst for change and grow beyond its one-member Quebec caucus. The goal is to take advantage of any further collapse in Liberal support or a tiring of Bloc supporters, and to grab a larger share of the anti-Harper vote.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is not expected to offer major new transfers to the provinces or to announce a final deal on the harmonization of the goods and services tax with the Quebec sales tax in his fiscal plan. Without major budget surprises on the horizon, the four major parties are jostling to capture the imagination of Quebeckers with distinctive measures to create jobs and foster growth in the province.
The Conservative Party is trying to win seats in the province with the promise of "tangible benefits" that can be brought home by MPs on the government benches. The party is focusing its efforts on " les régions," an expression that broadly refers to rural parts of the province that are far away, geographically and culturally, from downtown Montreal.
A recent string of handouts to snowmobile associations, including $94,000 for a grooming machine in the Eastern Townships on Tuesday, is a clear example of the Conservative strategy at play.
The Bloc is focusing on getting a bigger haul for Quebec and cementing its position as the top watchdog for the province's interests in Ottawa. For weeks now, Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe has called for $5-billion in new funding for the province in the next budget, saying his party will vote to bring down the government if its demands aren't met.
The NDP is taking another route, lashing out at planned corporate tax cuts, but also trying to present a new face on sustainable development in the province.
NDP MP Thomas Mulcair said his party has been working with opponents of the ongoing exploration for shale gas in Quebec, and that its new candidate in Manicouagan, Jonathan Genest-Jourdain, was a key player in the fight against uranium development in the province's north.
Mr. Mulcair added that unlike the Bloc, the NDP not only expresses its opposition to the oil industry in the West, but can do something about it with MPs all over the country.
"The Bloc can only talk about the tar sands in Quebec," Mr. Mulcair said, comparing that party to a hockey team made up entirely of defencemen. "That's the difference with the NDP, which is a social-democratic, pan-Canadian party, with a strong track record that is attracting more and more people in Quebec."
The Liberals, meanwhile, are trying to polarize the electorate by stating that they offer the only alternative to another Conservative government. In that context, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff insisted in Quebec City this week that on issues such as the construction of a new hockey amphitheatre, the Liberal Party is the only one that can provide federal funding.
"During the election, there will be a choice: the Conservatives who say no, the NDP that can't do anything, the Bloc that is impotent, and the Liberal Party that can deliver the goods on the Colisée," Mr. Ignatieff said.
According to a Leger Marketing poll that was made public on Monday, the Bloc obtained the support of 41 per cent of respondents. The NDP came in second at 20 per cent, ahead of the Liberals at 18 per cent and the Conservatives at 16 per cent.
The Quebec government is not expecting any surprises in the federal budget. In a break from tradition, it will lay down its fiscal plan on Thursday, five days ahead of the federal budget and the ensuing political firestorm.
"Let's be clear, when the federal budget is tabled, it will get caught up in a pre-electoral whirlwind," Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand said.
With a report from Rhéal Séguin in Quebec City
The construction of a $400-million hockey amphitheatre in Quebec City has been at the centre of a heated debate in Quebec, where the municipal and provincial governments will foot most of the bill.
In a poll published on Monday, Leger Marketing gauged whether Quebeckers agree or disagree with the Harper government's decision not to provide any federal funds to the project. The results highlighted a clear geographical split among respondents:
- Agree: 59%
- Disagree: 31%
Quebec City region
- Agree: 22%
- Disagree: 72%
- Agree: 52%
- Disagree: 41%
Source: Leger Marketing poll of 1,005 Quebeckers conducted March 7 to 10, with a margin of error of 3.1 per cent.