The Bloc Québécois is showing its age.
The polls had been kind to the 18-year-old party of late, both at the provincial level and in two strongholds that were the scenes of by-elections on Monday.
But the Bloc still failed in its attempts to hold on the riding of Rivière-du-Loup, east of Quebec City on the south shore of the St. Lawrence.
The unexpected loss poses the biggest challenge for Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe since his 2007 return to Ottawa after a brief attempt to win the leadership of the Parti Québécois.
Mr. Duceppe needs to rethink his message, attract better candidates and rejuvenate his image if he intends to continue running on a promise to stop the Harper Conservatives from forming a majority government.
Mr. Duceppe has been leading the Bloc since 1997. Thanks to his hard work and political smarts, he was able to capitalize on the sponsorship scandal and Conservative policy screw-ups in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 elections. But he can't count on another string of good luck to continue his winning streak, especially since Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Quebec Premier Jean Charest seem to have buried the hatchet.
Yesterday's defeat in Rivière-du-Loup was the second time in a row that the Bloc lost an apparent stronghold to the Conservatives in a by-election after the retirement of a "star" MP. The first time was in Roberval in 2007, when former Bloc House leader Michel Gauthier quit and was quickly replaced by a former mayor, Denis Lebel. The people of Roberval obviously liked Mr. Lebel, re-electing him in the last general election and seeing him become a junior minister in charge of regional development, with the accompanying cheque book.
In Rivière-du-Loup, long-time Bloc MP Paul Crête quit to run provincially this year, only to be replaced by another mayor running for the Conservatives, Bernard Généreux.
While the Conservatives managed to bring in new blood, the Bloc thought it could hold on in Rivière-du-Loup by promising "continuity" with Nancy Gagnon, a former assistant to Mr. Crête.
If it wants to survive against the strong-willed Tory machine, which offers voters a chance to be part of government with all the ensuing perks, the Bloc has to stop the recent trend of allowing former aides to run for the party.
The Bloc did keep on Monday its seat in Hochelaga, on Montreal Island, with the candidacy of Daniel Paillé (who won the nomination after Mr. Duceppe intervened to prevent another former Bloc aide from running).
Mr. Paillé's claim to fame is that he was a PQ MNA and minister from 1994 to 1996. Bloc officials predict that he will quickly rise above most, if not all, the current Bloc caucus in the party's hierarchy.
But if Mr. Duceppe is to fight off the Conservative Party, he must be able to attract more power brokers like Mr. Paillé to the Bloc, instead of relying on candidates who simply promise to stand up against "Canadian parties" and fight against the supposedly nefarious Conservative agenda.
Former hockey coach and newly appointed Conservative senator Jacques Demers brings little to the policy agenda in Ottawa, but he embodies the notion that the Conservatives are in power and in control. By lending a helping hand to Mr. Généreux, Mr. Demers showed how one can beat back an opposition party that has won a majority of seats in every election in Quebec since 1993, and that ironically represents the establishment in Quebec.
In a bid to explain his party's loss in Rivière-du-Loup, Mr. Duceppe issued a statement this morning stating that voters likely expressed their anger at Mr. Crête's failure to complete his mandate.
But the Bloc will have to consider the need for a more profound realignment of its main message, which is to oppose the major federalist party of the day.
In the 2006 election, the Bloc slammed the Liberals on a day-to-day basis, only to go after the surging Conservatives in the last few days of the campaign.
In 2008, the Bloc all but ignored the Liberals, taking shot after shot at the governing Conservatives from start to finish.
Then, as soon as the Liberals started gaining some momentum in Quebec under the leadership of Michael Ignatieff this summer, the Bloc choose to have it both ways, slamming the Liberals and Conservatives simultaneously as threats to the interests of all Quebeckers.
The see-sawing makes it seem as if the Bloc has no point except to go after whichever party seems to be on the rise in Quebec.
The result in Rivière-du-Loup on Monday was a sign that Quebeckers are starting to look for something else.