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Bloc Qu�b�cois Leader Gilles Duceppe, left, listens to Parti Qu�b�cois Leader Pauline Marois during a federal election campaign stop at a PQ national policy convention in Montreal on April 17, 2011. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)
Bloc Qu�b�cois Leader Gilles Duceppe, left, listens to Parti Qu�b�cois Leader Pauline Marois during a federal election campaign stop at a PQ national policy convention in Montreal on April 17, 2011. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Letter from Quebec

The NDP surge was stamped out in 1988 - but times have changed Add to ...

For decades, the progressive forces in Quebec have formed the backbone in the fight for political independence.

In the rest of Canada, many assumed that as long as the so-called question nationale in Quebec remained unresolved, the issue would haunt social democrats and prevent the NDP from becoming a force to be reckoned with in the province.

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The sovereignty issue remains as unresolved today as it was 30 years ago, but that hasn't stopped the NDP from gaining head-turning momentum in Quebec during this election campaign. Voters want change, something the Bloc Québécois hasn't delivered - largely because sovereignty hasn't been part of the political agenda for so long and there is no firm indication that a referendum is on the horizon.

The last time the NDP showed real vital signs in the province was in the 1988 federal election, which centred on the thorny matter of free trade with the United States. The Parti Québécois staunchly defended the free-trade agreement, arguing that the deal would prove that smaller countries - such as an independent Quebec - could prosper as long as they were part of a greater economic space. The PQ's position on free trade was at odds with the view of progressives in Quebec and beyond, in what was a highly polarized debate right across the country.

Despite then-NDP leader Ed Broadbent's efforts, which allowed his party to elect a record 43 candidates in in 1988, not a single seat was won in Quebec. But the party emerged in second place in five ridings in the province and came within less than 3,500 votes of winning its first seat ever with Rémy Trudel in the Northern Quebec riding of Temiscamingue.

NDP support in Quebec collapsed during the final days of the campaign, largely because of the PQ's involvement.

Nonetheless, then-PQ leader Jacques Parizeau was concerned that the increase in support for the NDP in Quebec, if allowed to go unchecked, could eventually constitute a threat at the provincial level. He immediately moved to demolish any hopes of the NDP building on its new-found support by recruiting Mr. Trudel as well as other NDP candidates and organizers in the PQ.

The demise of the constitutional accord two years later paved the way for the creation of the Bloc Québécois, which emerged as the province's most important political voice in Ottawa.

However, unlike in 1988, there appears to be no coherent reason this time to explain the sudden rise in support for the NDP in Quebec.

Voters' desire for change and their attraction to the NDP appear stronger than anything the Bloc has been able to offer so far as an alternative. Despite Mr. Parizeau's cry on Monday urging the PQ to "mobilize in this last week of the campaign to support with all our strength the Bloc Québécois," it is uncertain whether it will be enough to neutralize the bandwagon effect.

His actions stopped the NDP once before. But these are different times, and the political landscape has changed dramatically since then. Not even current PQ Leader Pauline Marois found the situation to be urgent enough to cancel her vacation this week to lend a hand in the final week of the Bloc's faltering campaign.

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