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PQ candidate Pierre Karl Peladeau waves on the stage before PQ leader Pauline Marois' speech on Monday April 7, 2014 in Montreal. Marois lost her seat in Charlevoix-Cote-de-Beaupre to Liberal candidate Caroline Simard.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The struggle for the soul of the Parti Québécois is already underway, with the leadership up for grabs and the PQ's bedrock issue, the sovereignty option, seriously undermined.

The debate in the party is expected to be acrimonious and the outcome uncertain. With the PQ winning only 25 per cent of the popular vote in Monday's election, its worst showing since 1970, several rank-and-file members will want the party to return to its roots and fight for its founding principle, political independence. Others will likely question whether Quebeckers will be ready for sovereignty anytime soon and will caution against moving too quickly.

Whatever route the party takes will largely depend on whom it chooses to replace Pauline Marois, who announced her decision to step down as leader after suffering the ultimate humiliation of losing in her own riding.

Three potential contenders – Pierre Karl Péladeau, Jean-François Lisée and Bernard Drainville – shared the stage with Ms. Marois as she conceded defeat. But the three, each in his own way, embodied much of what went wrong in the party's disastrous campaign.

Mr. Péladeau, the wealthy media baron who called on Quebec to be a country when he announced his candidacy, placed the referendum at the centre of the campaign. Despite that seminal moment, some will view him as a saviour. But the anti-union reputation that precedes him will demand considerable effort on his part to win the confidence of labour organizations that have always been sympathetic to the PQ.

"Quebeckers need to take their own decisions in order to fulfill and enrich themselves and to keep and maintain one of the most beautiful traits of our society, our solidarity," he said on election night in what appeared to be a first step toward building bridges with labour organizations and social activists. As for sovereignty, how eager Mr. Péladeau is to achieve it remains an enigma for now.

The other two potential contenders will also be burdened by their role in Monday's defeat. Mr. Lisée was the mastermind behind the Marois strategy to keep sovereignty and the holding of a referendum on the backburner. On his personal blog on Tuesday, he praised Ms. Marois's leadership. He blamed voters for their harsh judgment and for failing to embrace Ms. Marois's step-by-step approach to rekindling sovereignty aspirations.

"Pauline, the electorate was very hard on you. Hard towards our great dream of a country to be, as hard as a third referendum defeat, as hard as another No," Mr. Lisée wrote. "Yesterday my dear Pauline, there weren't enough Quebeckers to think like you, to think like us."

Mr. Lisée expressed no regret for the strategy he defined and which failed miserably in convincing Quebeckers.

Mr. Drainville, as the minister who presented and defended the controversial secular charter and the need to prohibit certain religious symbols in the public sector, will be held responsible for creating divisions where none existed before. His proposed charter of values was soundly rejected by voters, who were more concerned over economic issues than debating the politics of religious identity.

As the leadership race begins to take shape in the coming months, the PQ's historic campaign defeat will serve as a backdrop to the difficult challenges ahead.