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Parti Québécois MNA Sylvain Gaudreault, right, is applauded by his caucus and rival Agnes Maltais after he was chosen as interim leader on Friday, May 6, 2016 at the end of a Parti Québécois special caucus meeting in Quebec City.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

This time no business titan looms to lead the Parti Québécois, no obvious successor to Pierre Karl Péladeau with the stature to rally people around the dream of achieving Quebec independence.

This time, with an election scheduled in 2018, all the party has are relative unknowns who say they are "in reflection" over whether to run for the party leadership. Several of the potential candidates are young, one or two more experienced. They all either got flattened by Mr. Péladeau in the PQ leadership vote just one year ago or they passed on the idea of running against him before they could be steamrolled.

Mr. Péladeau, media magnate and controlling shareholder of Quebecor Inc., stepped down suddenly from his job as leader Monday after less than one tumultuous year. At his arrival he was hailed as the one man who could give the independence movement the heft it needed to unite right and left and revive the cause. At his departure, he tearfully cited a difficult divorce from prominent Quebec entertainer Julie Snyder and the need to care for their two young children.

The task now awaiting his replacement has grown only larger.

The PQ will get its fifth leader in 13 years – ninth if interim leaders are counted. The party has held power for just 18 months during that time and most recently in the 2014 election it suffered record-breaking poor results. Progressive, separatist rival Québec Solidaire is eating away the PQ vote on the left while nationalist conservative Coalition Avenir Québec sucks away votes on the PQ's right. With a hardline separatist upstart Option Nationale lurking in the background, the party is stuck eternally debating how far to go left or right and whether to push hard or move slowly for independence.

Theorists and PQ activists are split: Some say independence must be put on ice so the party can be an effective opponent to Premier Philippe Couillard's Liberals. Others say the party must be true to its founding mission: to make Quebec an independent country. "They're damned if they do and damned if they don't," said sociologist Claire Durand, a pre-eminent public opinion analyst who has tracked shifts among Quebec voters for years and sees no easy answer.

Political scientist Jean-François Daoust of the University of Montreal looks at the same data and puts it another way: "They don't have any choice but to move. Right now they're not scoring on any flank."

There are hints of the path ahead in the potential candidates and, especially, those who have already bowed out. Jean-Martin Aussant, an economist and occasional politician, will not run. He spoke at the funeral of former premier Jacques Parizeau last year and was seen as the man to carry his banner for a more forceful pursuit of independence.

Bernard Drainville, a 2015 leadership also-ran, will stay out of this race, he announced Friday. He was the architect of the so-called charter of values, which limited religious rights in the name of secularism, that was the centrepiece of the losing 2014 election campaign.

Alexandre Cloutier, 38, and Véronique Hivon, 46, are likely to run and would represent a new generation. Both are seen as inclusive and conciliatory figures that are more open to minorities. But independence hardliners find them soft on sovereignty and identity. They also happen to be the best of friends.

"Ms. Hivon and I, we've been talking and we still have as much affection as ever for one another," Mr. Cloutier, who is the early front-runner, told reporters Friday at a caucus meeting. "We have a real friendship, which gives us a scenario that could be a bit Shakespearean."

At the caucus meeting, the party chose Sylvain Gaudreault, a teacher from Chicoutimi and onetime minister of transport, to be interim leader.

In a post-election analysis, Prof. Durand wrote that non-francophones had mobilized in the 2014 election as rarely seen outside of the independence referendums in 1995 and 1980, partly because of the charter but also because of Mr. Péladeau's high-profile zeal for a quick sovereignty vote.

But the problem goes deeper than finding new voters: The PQ is also having trouble with traditional francophone supporters. Committed support for sovereignty languishes in the low 30s in recent polls and many francophones want nothing to do with a referendum. A recent CROP poll showed about one-third of Quebeckers who say they support independence voted Liberal in the last national election.

"The independence movement is in such deep hibernation that people can say they would vote Yes for independence and then turn around and vote for Justin Trudeau," said Youri Rivest of the CROP research firm. "These are strange sovereigntists."

Mr. Péladeau did little to reverse any of these trends. But he did move the party in one new direction: He proposed an electoral non-aggression pact so the opposition parties could concentrate their forces and defeat Liberals. Ms. Hivon was central to that plan, which included a rare admission that the PQ has no monopoly on the independence dream.

"That's Mr. Péladeau's legacy for the party," said Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, a former PQ cabinet minister and legislative assembly speaker. "The person who executes it will have to articulate the objectives with clarity and precision."

But a non-aggression pact among opposition parties is an elusive and unlikely path to victory. Françoise David, the leader of the left-wing Québec Solidaire, which holds three seats in the legislature and 10-per-cent popular support in polls, has brushed aside any talk of an alliance.

"Defeating Philippe Couillard is not a vision for the future," she said recently.

But Mr. Daoust, the political scientist, pointed out that Ms. David spoke while Mr. Péladeau, a union-busting former media boss, was still at the helm. "A lot can change now that he's not there," Mr. Daoust said.

Many PQ supporters bristle when political writers suggest the party is on the constant hunt for a saviour. But numbers help explain why the shorthand is used: The four times the PQ won majority governments, they've done it with a charismatic leader and voter turnout surpassing 78 per cent. The leaders who won those majorities were René Levesque, Mr. Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard.

Saviour or not, they were star political actors. No one with that kind of draw is rising on the horizon.

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