Few people outside Quebec had as much riding on the outcome of the province's election as Thomas Mulcair, who followed the results in the Newfoundland capital where members of his NDP caucus are meeting to plot their fall strategy.
Mr. Mulcair has been riding high in the polls since he took over as federal New Democratic Party Leader last March. If Quebeckers had voted to elect a Liberal or Coalition Avenir Québec government on Tuesday, that dynamic might have continued.
But because they voted for Pauline Marois and her Parti Québécois, he could be forced to take repeated stands on the controversial policies of a separatist government that was elected with the support of his base.
As the campaign was in full swing, Mr. Mulcair declined to offer his thoughts on its possible outcomes, promising to break his silence Wednesday when the results were known.
Françoise Boivin, the NDP MP for Gatineau, said that because her party is the Official Oppostion in the federal House of Commons, it does not have to say yes or no to any provincial government. In the case of Tuesday's election, said Ms. Boivin, the popular vote is heavily divided, "so I don't expect the question of sovereignty will be at the forefront.When you have a divided [provincial] parliament like this, you need some juggling to make it work."
But, for many reasons, a PQ government in the Quebec National Assembly could create a multitude of headaches for Mr. Mulcair. The NDP Leader is trying to cement his province's new affection for his party at the same time that he is trying to build support in the rest of the country.
As one NDP strategist told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday, any defence by the NDP of PQ strategy will allow Prime Minister Stephen Harper to "attack Mr. Mulcair in English Canada for collaborating with separatists, while pointing to his [own] caucus of federalist Quebec MPs."
The federal NDP landslide in Quebec last year was based, in part, on the appeal to soft nationalists, said Nik Nanos, the president of Nanos Research. With any misstep, "not only could [Mr. Mulcair] unravel his Quebec breakthrough, but he could unravel the current NDP coalition, which includes everything from soft Quebec nationalists to downtown urban left-wing voters to protest-Reform-oriented Westerners," he said.
Mr. Harper's Conservatives, on the other hand, have proven they can win a majority without broad appeal in Quebec, said Mr. Nanos. And, he said, any NDP support of PQ policies that could be seen as preferential to Quebec could be an effective counterfoil to consolidate Tory gains outside Quebec.
Mr. Mulcair's travails will not necessarily result from another referendum on sovereignty. If one is held, it will serve to highlight the allegiances of those Quebec New Democrats who have soft, and in some cases not-so-soft, sovereigntist sentiments. With support for sovereignty hovering below 30 per cent in Quebec, an imminent referendum would seem unlikely. But Ms. Marois has made it clear that she will quickly demand new and special powers for her province. And that could prove problematic for Mr. Mulcair.
With 58 of the party's 100 seats held by Quebeckers, the New Democrats have supplanted the Bloc Québécois as the voice of Quebec at the federal level. They can hardly vote against increased autonomy for their province, even if such a vote would create friction elsewhere in Canada.
Still, New Democrats said Tuesday that Mr. Mulcair was ready to handle whatever stripe of government lands in Quebec.
"I don't know of anybody in the caucus who is a supporter of the PQ," said Anne McGrath, who was chief of staff to Mr. Mulcair in the first months of his leadership as well as to his predecessor, Jack Layton. "The caucus in general is supportive of asymmetrical federalism, which is what's in the Sherbrooke Declaration [the NDP's Quebec policy paper], which allows for some kind of different arrangements with Quebec."
New Democrats will consider any demands made by Quebec on a "case-by-case basis," said Ms. McGrath, "and it will depend on how consistent it is with the positions that we have traditionally been taking."