The Quebec Liberal Party's new leader, Philippe Couillard, faces a tough task.
First, he must revitalize the party, while winning back francophone voters. Currently, no more than one francophone in five is attracted to the QLP, which owes a good deal of its electoral strength to Montreal's anglophone minority. All votes are equal, of course, but a party estranged from the province's linguistic majority has no future.
The new leader's priority will be to bring back into the fold the disenchanted Liberal sympathizers who voted for the Coalition Avenir Québec, a party with a moderate, centre-right nationalist platform that refuses to be labelled as federalist or sovereigntist.
Mr. Couillard is taking over a party that has lost its stamina as well as its formidable organization, and whose image is tainted by allegations of corruption. Even though no scandal involving a top Liberal official has yet been substantiated, this persistent cloud has altered the Liberal brand. At the convention that elected Mr. Couillard on Sunday, 20 per cent of the delegates didn't even show up to cast their votes.
Mr. Couillard has many assets. A neurosurgeon who served as health minister from 2003 to 2008, he's bright, cultured and articulate, albeit not a charismatic public speaker. (No one is in Quebec's current political scene.) He emerged as a strong winner in the leadership race, taking 58.5 per cent of the vote in a field of three, in large part because he was seen as the Liberals' best hope against the Parti Québécois.
Only time will tell whether Mr. Couillard is up to a challenge that, in principle, should be attainable since the PQ government, after less than six months in office, is plagued with voter dissatisfaction. A recent Leger Marketing survey shows 68 per cent of Quebeckers unhappy with the government, a figure almost as high as former premier Jean Charest's worst scores. The QLP and the PQ are neck and neck at 30 per cent, with the CAQ at 20 per cent and two left-wing sovereigntist parties, Québec Solidaire and Option Nationale, gaining ground at the expense of the PQ with a total of 14 per cent.
Mr. Couillard, though, has liabilities, the first one being that he's untested as a leader. Some in the Liberal caucus find him cold and haughty, which may explain why no more than 14 MNAs supported his candidacy while 23 sided with the other two contenders, even though Mr. Couillard was clearly the front-runner from the beginning (the other MNAs stayed neutral).
Mr. Couillard wants to wait before running for office, maybe even until the next provincial election. He intends to travel around the province to shore up the organization, recruit new supporters and plan for a convention on policy. This might be his first mistake, and a sign that, as intelligent as he is, he might lack political acumen. His absence from the National Assembly will make him lose a great deal of visibility, prevent him from uniting his caucus and acting as the hands-on leader of the opposition – leaving Premier Pauline Marois without a strong opponent in the major political forum.
Mr. Couillard also foolishly promised to reopen the constitutional debate to allow Quebec to sign the 1982 Constitution – an unrealistic idea that has already given the PQ an opening to harass him for more details in the full knowledge that the plan can't succeed. This certainly isn't how a new Liberal leader can attract the francophone voters lost to the CAQ, the ones who don't want to hear another word about the Constitution.