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opinion

It was widely expected that the Parti Québécois leadership race would feature three major contenders: Pierre Karl Péladeau, the owner of Quebecor and a neophyte National Assembly member, whose polling numbers have identified him as the favourite; and Jean-François Lisée and Bernard Drainville, two former journalists and star ministers in the last PQ government.

But in the space of a couple of days, this scenario went up in smoke. Mr. Péladeau was caught in what he himself described as an "apparent situation of conflict of interest," while Mr. Lisée found himself discredited within the party after he made two damaging remarks against his rivals. As for Mr. Drainville, he's been hospitalized for acute back pain – no wonder, one TV host quipped, considering all the knives in his back from his Péquiste comrades.

Mr. Drainville was the minister responsible for the Parti Québécois's controversial Charter of Quebec Values, whose main provision was to forbid public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols at work. After the party's spring election loss, many PQ militants blamed the charter, and several former cabinet ministers, including the justice minister, declared that they'd had reservations about it (although they had all kept their mouths shut during the acrimonious debate).

But Mr. Lisée went even further. In a book chapter leaked to Radio-Canada last week, he wrote that he would have voted against the charter if it hadn't carried a grandfather clause to prevent actual employees from being fired (the bill died when the election was called).

This revelation was a bit rich, since Mr. Lisée, a long-time PQ strategist, was the mastermind of the party's embrace of identity politics. In an earlier book, he even advocated denying the right to vote to immigrants who didn't know French well enough. During the tough, emotional debate on the charter, he campaigned hard for the bill and even co-wrote an impassioned letter to The New York Times with Mr. Drainville to justify it.

Mr Lisée's belated revelation shocked his former colleagues in the news media, where he was widely denounced as a consummate hypocrite who couldn't be trusted. His reputation within the party had already been eroded when he lashed out at Mr. Péladeau, his main rival, whom he accused of being "a time bomb" as simultaneously both a legislator and the controlling shareholder of a large media and business empire.

The attack angered Mr. Péladeau's many partisans within the PQ, but then La Presse revealed that Mr. Péladeau had used his position as MNA to urge provincial intervention in the potential sale of a Montreal film company being bid for by Quebecor. The governing Liberals and the opposition Coalition Avenir Québec quickly tabled a motion requiring Mr. Péladeau to choose between his properties and his seat, while the National Assembly's ethics commissioner opened an inquiry on the matter.

And so the three likely contenders for the leadership were in deep trouble even before formally announcing their candidacies. Mr. Lisée, who was already unpopular within the party, is probably out for good. Mr. Drainville, whose only claim to fame was the now-discredited secular charter, further alienated many sovereigntists when he said that the PQ shouldn't call a referendum within a first mandate. As for Mr. Péladeau, he may end up preferring to leave politics rather than renounce ownership of the media empire he inherited from his father.

The other two Péquistes who seem interested in the leadership are very minor figures – the stage that looked so crowded a week ago is now practically empty.