During the "Maple Spring" of 2012, Parti Québecois Leader Pauline Marois wore a red patch in solidarity with students opposing tuition hikes and even banged on pots with them in protest. Elected Premier later that year, she chose the most left-leaning cabinet in decades, naming a former Quebec Green Party stalwart as her environment minister.
The failure of those moves to boost her Parti Québecois among young Quebeckers, or win back progressives from the upstart Québec Solidaire, led Ms. Marois to change tack. Over the past year, she moved the PQ to the right in a clear attempt to go after conservative nationalists who had gravitated to the Coalition Avenir Québec.
That seemed to work for a while. But the PQ candidacy of media magnate and newly committed sovereigntist Pierre Karl Péladeau appears to have sent anti-referendum Caquistes seeking refuge with the Liberals, and more left-wing voters into the arms of Québec Solidaire. Ms. Marois's "right turn" could even cost her power on April 7.
"The PQ government is going in the same direction as the Liberals, with austerity policies and supporting businesses that pollute," says Manon Massé, who stands a good chance of becoming Québec Solidaire's third MNA by winning the once solidly Péquiste Montreal riding of Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques.
As for the arrival of Mr. Péladeau, "people in my riding are indignant," Ms. Massé adds. "That man has put hundreds – even thousands – of workers on lock-out over the years."
Founded in 2006, largely because of dissatisfaction with the former PQ government of Lucien Bouchard, QS has moved from the fringes to the mainstream of Quebec politics. Its de facto leader, Françoise David (her official title is co-spokesperson) is now included in televised debates, has a huge media profile and a favourability rating most politicians would envy.
"This is a good campaign for them," McGill University political science professor Éric Bélanger says of Québec Solidaire. "It should allow them to continue to grow."
Going from less than 4 per cent of the popular vote and one seat in 2008 to 6 per cent and two seats in 2012, QS is now flirting with double-digit support. Ms. Massé, who came second in her riding in 2012, could knock off PQ incumbent Daniel Breton, the ex-Green forced to resign as environment minister over unpaid rents. And elsewhere in the province, growing QS support threatens to deprive the PQ of victory in close races.
As a result, Ms. Marois has suddenly turned her guns on QS, accusing Ms. David of aiding Philippe Couillard's Liberals. But Ms. Massé insists the PQ has alienated progressives all by itself.
After much hesitation, Ms. Marois's government announced just before the campaign that it would allow oil exploration on pristine Anticosti Island – crossing a line in the sand for Quebec environmentalists. Her government has also approved a $450-million public investment in a cement plant in the Gaspé region that would become one of the province's single largest polluters. And it has endorsed the reversal of an existing east-west pipeline that would enable Montreal oil refineries to process Alberta crude.
Québec Solidaire also opposes the PQ's proposal to ban public employees from wearing religious symbols, which it charges would hurt minority women most.
Mr. Péladeau's landing, meanwhile, heralds a potential schism among left- and right-wing sovereigntists. QS supports sovereignty, but only as a means to a greener and fairer Quebec. Ms. Massé insists her party also has room for "progressive federalists." And QS MNA Amir Khadir has even described sovereignty as a step toward "renewing the unity of Canada" through a new Canada-Quebec union.
QS's fiscal program – it proposes $9-billion in new taxes annually, largely on corporations and the rich – borders on the fantastical. But its promises to create a guaranteed minimum income, wean Quebec off oil and eliminate a controversial health tax have allowed it to usurp the PQ's traditional spot as the province's progressive voice.
QS's constant gains at the expense of the PQ threaten to throw that party into another one of its existential crises if it loses the election or only ekes out a minority government.