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Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe talks to supporters in Gatineau, Quebec, Friday April 29, 2011. (Fred Chartrand/ The Canadian Press/Fred Chartrand/ The Canadian Press)
Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe talks to supporters in Gatineau, Quebec, Friday April 29, 2011. (Fred Chartrand/ The Canadian Press/Fred Chartrand/ The Canadian Press)

Bloc desperate to shore up sovereigntist vote Add to ...

Bloc officials and Quebec sovereigntists are bracing for a tough election night.

The morning after stands to be even worse.

As part of a last-ditch strategy to contain an NDP surge, the Bloc has tried to transform the federal election in Quebec into a battle between sovereigntists and federalists. The final result, however, will be embarrassing for the sovereigntist movement if current poll numbers hold up.

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The standard for sovereigntists was set in 1995, when the Yes camp took slightly more than 49-per cent of the vote in a tightly fought referendum on Quebec sovereignty. Pollsters continue gauging support for sovereignty in Quebec, and regularly come up with numbers in the 40-per cent range. In addition, the Parti Québécois is leading on the provincial stage, with the promise of bringing a pro-sovereignty agenda to the National Assembly if it replaces the Liberal government of Jean Charest.

But on Saturday, polls by Angus-Reid and Léger Marketing put the Bloc at 26-per cent and 27-per cent in Quebec, respectively.

The Bloc's numbers are low despite a week of heavy campaigning on the sovereigntist agenda by Leader Gilles Duceppe, with assists from former Parti Québécois premier Jacques Parizeau and PQ Leader Pauline Marois.

If the Bloc's final percentage of the overall vote on Monday remains in the 20s or low 30s, or if the Bloc's current caucus of 47 MPs falls below the magic mark of 38 (more than half of the province's 75 seats), federalists of every stripe will revel in the Bloc's poor showing.

All of this explains why no one on the campaign wants to lay down Monday's results as a barometer of Quebeckers' sovereigntist fervour.

"It's too early to come to conclusions, let's wait until Monday," Ms. Marois said in the first of six campaign stops on Saturday with Mr. Duceppe.

Mr. Duceppe also refused to set targets for Monday, which is in keeping with his long-standing position that Quebec's future will not be decided in Ottawa or in a federal election.

But this campaign is unlike any other in the history of Quebec, given the Bloc has never tried to turn the issue of sovereignty into the ballot question. It's a risky strategy, which explains why it wasn't the party's first-choice, either.

The Bloc started off comfortably in the lead in late March, but it was carrying lots of baggage.

Mr. Duceppe celebrated his 20 years in federal politics last year, which was a recognition of his political skills, but it also reinforced the sense of fatigue that has afflicted his party in recent years.

After a strong performance in the 2004 election, the Bloc started facing signs of discontent in the 2006 vote, in which the Conservatives finished off strongly. In 2008, the Bloc was facing constant questions about its raison-d'être at the start of the campaign, until the Conservatives became entangled in cuts to cultural programs and took a series of shots from the Charest government.

While the 2006 and 2008 final results were strong, the party has seemed stuck in an uphill battle ever since. This year's campaign quickly went off the tracks as Quebeckers failed to adhere to the party's core message, namely that voting Bloc was the only way to stop the Conservative Party's bid for a majority.

In fact, the Bloc started dropping in the polls before the NDP went up, suggesting that Quebeckers were disenchanted by the Bloc more than they were enthralled by Jack Layton, at least at first.

The Bloc's struggles are not unexpected to a faction of the party that has long advocated for a greater focus on sovereignty, and less emphasis on the protection of social-democratic values in Ottawa, which has been at the heart of recent campaigns.

According to that vision, the Bloc is fuelling the perception that it continuously whines and opposes, without offering anything concrete to Quebeckers.

"If we're losing, it's because we haven't spoken enough about sovereignty, not because we have spoken too much about it," a Bloc source said. "There is a price to pay for not having been ourselves."

In the last two days of the campaign, sovereignty is back at the centre of the Bloc's strategy. Ms. Marois and Mr. Duceppe are travelling along the St. Lawrence between Montreal and Quebec City, reaching out to sovereigntists and encouraging them to vote in the federal election.

"In order to achieve sovereignty, the more elected representatives who are in place to defend the project, the easier it will be to go out and meet with citizens to promote this project," Ms. Marois said.

Ms. Marois and Mr. Duceppe will find out late on Monday evening how many Bloc MPs will be available to work on their long-standing dream.

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