The Bloc Québécois leadership race will begin soon, and the next leader will face a stiff challenge. The party has yet to recover from its collapse in the 2011 federal election and its prospects for another return to dominance against two tough rivals are grim.
The Bloc Québécois has averaged about 23 per cent support in Quebec in polls conducted in the last three months of 2013, unchanged from the 23.4 per cent of the province's vote the sovereigntist party captured in 2011. That puts the Bloc solidly in third place, trailing Thomas Mulcair's New Democrats by about three points and Justin Trudeau's Liberals by about 10.
The party's francophone media presence is minuscule and no big names have emerged as likely successors to Daniel Paillé, who resigned as leader for health reasons in December. It was decided on the weekend that his replacement will be named at a convention held in Rimouski between May 23 and 25, with the rules of the leadership contest determined at a party meeting on Feb. 22. So far, only André Bellavance and Jean-François Fortin, who represent half of the Bloc's caucus of four MPs, have expressed interest in taking over.
The Bloc Québécois might not be as moribund as it appears on first glance. At 23 per cent support, more Quebeckers would vote for the Bloc than the number of Ontarians who would vote for the NDP, Atlantic Canadians (and Quebeckers) who would vote for the Conservatives, or Albertans who would vote for the Liberals. The Bloc has more support in Quebec than the Liberal Party did nationwide in 2011 or the New Democrats had in any election prior to the last vote. From that perspective, the party is far from dead.
But how firm is that support? Their sovereigntist voters are likely far more concerned with the fate of the Parti Québécois, which forms the provincial government, than that of the Bloc Québécois, which now has little influence in Ottawa. It will be hard to motivate these people to head to the polls in an election the Bloc is expected to lose handily – why waste their time voting in an election they consider of secondary importance?
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The prospects for seat gains by the Bloc are rather slight, buoyed only by the possibility of coming up the middle between the slumping New Democrats and surging Liberals in the province. Polls suggest that the Bloc has lost ground everywhere in Quebec, and even among their traditional bases of support.
Polls done by Léger in the first three months of 2011, before the debacle in May, put the Bloc Québécois at around 39 per cent support in the province. They had 46 per cent support among francophones, and were in front in and around Montreal (34 per cent), in Quebec City (31 per cent), and in the rest of the province (46 per cent).
Detailed polls conducted in the last three months of 2013, on the other hand, show the Bloc down 24 points among francophones to just 22 per cent. They trail with only 18 per cent support in the Montreal region, 16 per cent in and around Quebec City, and just 21 per cent in the other regions of Quebec. These levels of support are far too low – and not concentrated enough – to elect more than a handful of MPs.
The Bloc would certainly benefit from having someone with a higher profile than either Mr. Bellavance or Mr. Fortin as leader, though their presence in the House of Commons is an advantage Mr. Paillé did not have. His lack of profile was made clear in a Léger poll done at the end of the year just before Mr. Paillé's resignation, which showed that 20 per cent of Quebeckers did not have an opinion of him and 48 per cent did not know who he was. He had lower notoriety in Quebec than Conservative MPs Christian Paradis and Maxime Bernier and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, despite her party capturing just 2 per cent of the vote in the province in 2011.
Polling by CROP found that just 5 per cent, and never more than 8 per cent during his tenure, thought Mr. Paillé would make the best prime minister. Though that might seem intuitive considering the Bloc could never form government, Gilles Duceppe registered 17 per cent on this question at the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011.
The Bloc Québécois will always be able to count on a base of support in the province due to its position on sovereignty, but the next leader desperately needs to give it a real boost for the party to regain even a fraction of the influence it once held in both Ottawa and Quebec.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.