The first cracks have appeared in the NDP's massive Quebec base, fuelling the sense the leaderless party is losing momentum in the province that is key to its dreams of forming the next government.
Elected as part of last year's "Orange Wave," Lise St-Denis stunned her colleagues Tuesday as she crossed the floor to the federal Liberals, arguing the NDP has lost the drawing card that proved so popular with electors eight months ago.
"They voted for Jack Layton. Jack Layton is dead," Ms. St-Denis said about the former leader of the NDP at a news conference.
While Ms. St-Denis was but one of 58 NDP rookies of varying profile from Quebec, her defection illustrates the ongoing turmoil that was caused by Mr. Layton's death last August.
The NDP has seen its fortunes decline in recent polls in Quebec as some of its best-known MPs are absent from the House of Commons to pursue their leadership bids, including the party's Quebec lieutenant and only political veteran, Thomas Mulcair. Interim leader Nycole Turmel has largely disappointed New Democrats, many of whom have privately criticized the party's numerous mistakes in the fall session of Parliament.
Another leadership candidate, Brian Topp, complained about the length of the race to find a replacement for Mr. Layton, which leaves the party in a vulnerable state and will only be decided in late March. In that context, Ms. St-Denis's defection is a blow to the Official Opposition – and a boon to the Liberal Party, which suffered a severe correction and finished in third place in the last election.
The relative speed with which Ms. St-Denis decided to bolt the party shook up Ottawa, especially since she spent about a decade as a party volunteer. Explaining her decision, the 71-year-old said she did not feel at ease in a party that wanted to put a quick end to the Canadian Forces mission in Libya, called for the abolition of the Senate and rejected any private-sector involvement in building a new bridge in Montreal.
The NDP said the defection was a betrayal of the wishes of electors in St-Maurice-Champlain, the long-time stronghold of former Liberal leader Jean Chrétien that gave the MP a majority of 4,667 votes over her Bloc rival eight months ago.
"Changing political affiliation is a blatant lack of respect for democracy," said NDP MP Guy Caron, who chairs the party's Quebec caucus. "If the Liberals think that this is what the voters of her riding want, we challenge them to run Ms. St-Denis in a by-election."
Mr. Caron added that Quebeckers not only placed their trust in Mr. Layton in the last election, but also in the NDP's core values and policies, which include preventing MPs from crossing the floor without going back to the polls.
"People voted for Mr. Layton, but they also voted for a set of values that he embodied ... and a new way of doing politics," Mr. Caron said. "This defection to another party goes against what Mr. Layton stood for."
Still, Ms. St-Denis's decision comes at an opportune time for the Liberal Party, which is about to gather in Ottawa for a policy convention. Her move also reinforces the position of Bob Rae, the interim leader of the party who might be tempted to eventually take over the party on a permanent basis.
"It's a sign of great fluidity and great change [in Quebec]" said Mr. Rae, who added that it was too early to state that other floor-crossings were in the wings. "Whether anything else happens, I have no idea."
Mr. Rae added that no one could argue that Ms. St-Denis's decision "to leave the official opposition for the third party is an act of opportunism."
At a news conference, Ms. St-Denis said she started reflecting on moving to the Liberal Party about six months ago. Having run in a lost cause for the NDP in the 2008 election in a riding south of Montreal, she acknowledged that she did not expect to win when she became an NDP candidate earlier this year.
Ms. St-Denis, who lives on Montreal's south shore, said she has yet to decide whether to take up a permanent residence in St-Maurice-Champlain, which includes the city of Shawinigan, about a 1 1/2 hour drive to the north-east. She said her health is fine and that she feels no side-effects from her current cancer treatments.
She had officially supported the leadership bid of NDP MP Mr. Mulcair, but had also been seen as being in favour of a rapprochement between the NDP and the Liberals. However, at a news conference she refused to take a question on the issue of a merger between the NDP and the Liberal Party.
Ms. St-Denis is also known as a staunch federalist, with an NDP source saying that she privately lambasted the fact that Ms. Turmel had recently been a member of the separatist Bloc Québécois.