This looks like a bad time to head up an old political party in Quebec. For Philippe Couillard, the phlegmatic Premier and Leader of the 150-year-old Liberals, it could prove fatal.
Mr. Couillard has impressive laurels to rest upon, given the province's economic recovery and his successful efforts to put Quebec's public finances on a sustainable track. But he gets zero credit for it from voters, what with a dismal approval rating and historically low Liberal poll numbers.
Facing an election within a year, increasingly worried members of Mr. Couillard's caucus have begun to openly (though still anonymously) complain to journalists about the Premier's seeming disconnectedness. Mr. Couillard's unexcitable demeanour was once seen as a mark of his maturity compared to the hotheads leading the opposition. Now, MNAs worry he is out of touch.
"In the past two weeks, not a day has passed without someone talking to me about the possible departure of Philippe Couillard before the next election," Mario Dumont, the ex-leader of the defunct Action Démocratique du Québec, wrote last week in the Journal de Montréal. "Just before Christmas? Just after New Year's?"
Anxious Liberals are not the only ones feeding speculation about the best-before date of their leader. Over at the 49-year-old Parti Québécois, Jean-François Lisée is scrambling to dispel doubts about his own political future barely a year after he won the leadership. Though he overwhelmingly won a confidence vote in September, that endorsement belied the fragility of his support. Mr. Lisée has since faced a rising tide of dissidence within his own caucus.
An Oct. 28 Léger Marketing poll conducted for Le Devoir and The Globe and Mail had the PQ at 20 per cent support, a level that would translate into about 15 seats in the 125-seat National Assembly. The Liberals, meanwhile, are facing near annihilation outside their anglophone and ethnic strongholds, with 29 per cent support over all, and at 21 per cent among francophones.
What's behind the old-party doldrums? The Liberals have been in power for 15 years, except for the 18 months that the PQ led a minority government until early 2014. Both parties are seen as relics of an era when the federalist-sovereigntist divide defined Quebec politics. Mr. Couillard, who turned 60 in June, and Mr. Lisée, who will do so in February, are products of that era.
On the 30th anniversary of René Lévesque's death this month, Le Devoir asked a sampling of millennials what the late PQ premier and indépendantiste icon meant to them. Not much, it turned out, or at least not enough to take up his cause. "There is a clash between our idea of openness to the world and the need to express ourselves as a people," one said. "My parents are really for independence, but for the new generation, that's the past. Me, I feel in between."
There is especially a yearning among the post-Lévesque cohort to transcend the identity politics in which the old parties remain mired. To wit, among Liberal MNAs, Mr. Couillard is under siege for the way he and Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée allowed themselves to be ridiculed by the opposition and the rest of Canada over Bill 62 on religious neutrality, a law that satisfies no one.
Mr. Lisée misread the public mood by vowing to introduce his own, much-tougher legislation that would not only give Bill 62 teeth by requiring penalties for those who violated the ban on religious face-coverings when dispensing or receiving public services. His proposed bill would also have banned those in authority from wearing religious symbols and stuck a committee to examine prohibiting the niqab and burka from all public spaces.
The PQ caucus revolted and Mr. Lisée retreated. Quebeckers might want the state to establish the rules of the road for religious accommodation. But Mr. Lisée's proposal just smacked of meanness.
For now, disgust with the two old parties is mainly benefiting the six-year-old Coalition Avenir Québec. The populist, right-leaning CAQ has tended to peak between elections. And Leader François Legault, who also happens to be 60, is hardly above identity politics. But the CAQ is now seen as the favourite heading into an election year.
Then there's the decade-old Québec Solidaire, the preferred option of Quebec progressives. It's counting on momentum from the leftist Projet Montréal victory in this month's municipal elections to help it take yet more ridings away from the PQ next year.
To survive 2018, the old parties will need to take their vitamins.