Only a month ago, the Parti Québécois was comfortably leading the Liberals in the polls and was on track to take office in Quebec City in the province's next general election. Now, the PQ's numbers have dropped precipitously and the future of their leader is in question. But the troubles Pauline Marois faces are nothing new for the notoriously tumultuous party.
Earlier this month, four heavyweight MNAs resigned from caucus over Ms. Marois's handling of the hot potato of Quebec City's planned arena. While this was the catalyst for their departure, her perceived weakness on the sovereignty issue and the control she exercises over her party were the root causes. In the wake of the resignations, a war of words between former PQ leader Jacques Parizeau, who also happens to be the husband of one of the disgruntled MNAs, and elements of the party loyal to Ms. Marois has erupted.
Prior to the crisis, the Parti Québécois was performing well in the polls. Between April and May the party was averaging 37 per cent support, well ahead of the moribund governing party. But in two polls released since the resignations the PQ has dropped to roughly 28 per cent support. This puts them statistically tied with the Liberals, whose leader is the most unpopular provincial premier in the country.
The PQ has not been this low since the spring of 2007, when André Boisclair was leader. He also faced internal dissension, due in part to his unsuccessful stewardship of the PQ. Over the span of his leadership, the PQ's support steadily declined but in December, 2006, to January of 2007 the party was still polling around 36 per cent, and stood a very good chance of forming the next government.
But Mr. Boisclair's murky position on holding a referendum and his inability to squash the unpopular Liberals in the polls led to criticism of his leadership from the rank and file. This was amplified in late January when Bernard Landry expressed his willingness to replace Mr. Boisclair if asked to do so. The PQ caucus rallied around Mr. Boisclair but the PQ's poll numbers tanked, dropping to 30 per cent, and in the March, 2007, election the PQ was reduced to third party status. Under attack for his electoral failure, Mr. Boisclair resigned in May of that year, blaming in part the machinations of the former premier.
Mr. Landry's role in Mr. Boisclair's demise was not without irony. After taking over from outgoing leader Lucien Bouchard in 2001, Mr. Landry subsequently lost the 2003 election to Jean Charest's Liberals. The unpopularity ratings of Mr. Charest's government rose quickly, and by early 2004 Mr. Landry's Parti Québécois stood at about 44 per cent in the polls.
But from roughly August to October of that year, Mr. Landry's leadership came under question. Those leading the charge were Pauline Marois and François Legault, two figures now central to Quebec's political future. With his leadership criticized by one of his MNAs and the party's membership raising their voices against Mr. Landry, the party's polling numbers dropped to 40 per cent by the end of the year. In June of 2005, after receiving a vote of confidence of 76 per cent from the party, Mr. Landry resigned as leader.
His predecessor also resigned under less than ideal circumstances. Lucien Bouchard swept in as premier after Mr. Parizeau's failed 1995 referendum on sovereignty. Mr. Bouchard then went on to win the next election in 1998, despite earning fewer votes than the Liberals, and was half-way through his second mandate when he, too, came under attack from within.
Mr. Bouchard's unwillingness to hold another referendum brought him under fire from one of his MNAs, who threatened to resign. Local riding associations also expressed their displeasure, and then in December, 2000, the Michaud Affair blew up for the party. Mr. Parizeau was one of those opposing Mr. Bouchard's handling of the issue, and the PQ's polling numbers went from 43 per cent in mid-2000 to 39 per cent in early 2001. In January, Mr. Bouchard resigned as premier.
But it has not always been this way for the PQ. Jacques Parizeau, who comes from the more stridently sovereigntist wing of the party, never had his leadership seriously challenged.
And in 1985 and 1987, calls from within the party for their leaders' heads and their subsequent resignations improved the PQ's polling numbers. Pierre-Marc Johnson's support stood at about 22 per cent for much of 1987, but after Gérald Godin successfully called for his resignation in November of that year, the PQ's numbers jumped to 30 per cent by early 1988.
For René Lévesque, who was faced with the resignation of several MNAs (including Mr. Parizeau) in November and December of 1984 after accepting the beau risque of Brian Mulroney, the party's poll numbers went from 24 per cent support to 26 per cent by early 1985.
In almost every case, a leader's perceived softness on sovereignty has led to criticism from within the party and subsequent turmoil in the polls. Over the last decade, the effects seem to have been getting more severe with every instance of internal bickering. The PQ lost four points during each of the crises surrounding Mr. Bouchard and Mr. Landry, six points when Mr. Boisclair's leadership was criticized, and nine points with the newest round of resignations.
For Mr. Lévesque, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Bouchard, and Mr. Landry, these troubles resulted in their departures. For Mr. Boisclair, it contributed to his electoral defeat. History therefore suggests the chances Pauline Marois can save her leadership and keep her ambitions of being the province's first female premier alive are steadily diminishing.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com