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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)

Lysiane Gagnon

'You can't take a poll and put it in the ballot box' Add to ...

What a campaign! Conventional wisdom had it that, in Quebec, it would be business as usual, with the Bloc Québécois once again scoring an easy victory in the province. Instead, Quebec provided the NDP with unexpected momentum - an astonishing rise that would reverberate in the rest of the country. By the end of the campaign, a stunned and haggard Gilles Duceppe was desperately trying to round up his base, appealing to hard-core sovereigntists to go out and vote.

"This election is not between the right and the left, it is a fight between Quebec and Canada," he said, at the risk of alienating the many non-sovereigntists who routinely vote for the Bloc.

This was a complete break with his earlier campaign speeches, when he insisted that a vote for his party was the best way to prevent a Conservative right-wing majority. But this was before support for the New Democrats started to grow exponentially.

At the beginning of April, the NDP was a close second to the Bloc in the polls. Two weeks later, the "orange effect" was such that the Bloc trailed behind the NDP by 10 to 12 points. Not only had the NDP - a party that had never succeeded in Quebec even though it often tried - become by far the first federalist federal party in Quebec, it had become the most popular federal party in the province, and "Jack" - the only federal leader affectionately called by his first name - was a star, someone people like and feel close to, " un bon Jack," as in the old saying used by francophones to describe "a good guy."

For many francophones, the Bloc is past its due date. Its message is repetitive, its action unproductive, and Mr. Duceppe - who just ran his sixth campaign as leader - a tired figure.

Still, chances are the Bloc will gather a plurality of the Quebec seats, thanks to its formidable organization. Apart from five or six ridings where the NDP had good candidates and grassroots workers, Jack Layton's party wasn't able to capitalize on the wave of support for its leader because, as Thomas Mulcair, the NDP's lone MP in Quebec, once said, "you can't take a poll and put it in the ballot box."

The party was without a decent organization, with no more than 16 campaign offices outside Montreal. Most candidates were part-time volunteers who didn't even bother to campaign (some actually vacationed outside the province or hardly spoke French).

Quebec has seen such unexpected waves before. Brian Mulroney's huge victory in 1984 was totally unexpected at the start of the campaign (but he had the support of René Lévesque's Parti Québécois). In 2007, under Mario Dumont, the Action Démocratique du Québec, the perennial third party, surprised everyone (including Mr. Dumont) by becoming the official opposition. But this time around, the NDP's sudden rise won't be felt at only one level of government.

If support for the Bloc goes down sharply in this election, it will be a devastating blow for the sovereigntist movement as a whole. It will be a sure sign that the ideal of sovereignty has lost its appeal, and it will make life much harder for the PQ, which will be unable to push its sovereignty agenda even if it wins the next provincial election.

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