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Who Will Win in the PQ Leadership Race? Cloutier or Lisée?

Mike Cohen

If a provincial election were held today in Quebec, Premier Philippe Couillard’s Liberals would likely be back in office with another majority government.

It’s not that the Liberals are doing so well. They only lead the polls by default since there won’t be another vote in Quebec for two years. But the opposition Parti-Québecois will choose a new leader on Oct. 7 and, depending who gets the nod, the separatists/sovereignists will have plenty of time to get their act together.

There are four candidates vying to succeed Pierre Karl Péladeau, whose jump from the boardroom of his Quebecor empire to politics was nothing short of a disaster (he quit less than a year after winning the leadership).

The favourite to win is Alexandre Cloutier. At only 39, he’s being looked at as a separatist version of Justin Trudeau: young, handsome and charismatic. Right on his heels is Jean-François Lisée, who has been hammering away at Cloutier in debates and the media. Martine Ouellet and Paul St-Pierre Plamondon are not really in contention.

Who would the Liberals prefer to see in office? Well, they won the last election on the strength of the PQs’ insistence at promising to hold another referendum, as polls show absolutely no appetite to separate from Canada. Meanwhile, Cloutier says he’ll decide whether to hold a referendum six months before a general election. Lisée, a smooth-talking former advisor to former PQ Premiers Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, says he would not hold a referendum in the first mandate of a PQ government.  If he gets the nod, the Liberals would suddenly lose their main weapon against the PQ.

I asked two former members, both Jewish, of the Quebec National Assembly for the D’Arcy McGee riding to divulge how they see the race. Lawrence Bergman stepped down before the last election after 18 years in office. Robert Libman, also a former B’nai Brith Canada regional director in Quebec, preceded Bergman and was leader of the short-lived English rights Equality Party.

“I believe that Mr. Cloutier will win,” said Bergman, who in my opinion would make an excellent political pundit in local media. “He is young, intelligent and personable, giving the Pequistes the sunny image à la Trudeau. A recent poll shows that he has the best chance of upsetting the governing Liberals in a general election. He has the support of more caucus members than his rival and he is favoured by the PQ establishment. The rank and file of the party want to win the next general election.”

Lawrence Bergman, former Jewish Member of the Quebec National Assembly

The PQ lost the last election for a number of reasons, one of which was the failed Charter of Values, which would have banned the wearing of overt religious symbols at work. Variations of that bill are still being considered by the Liberals and talked about by the PQ.  Lisée said he would ban the wearing of the burka and niqab in public.

Libman says Cloutier is clearly the favourite and the one most likely to appeal to the PQ membership. “Lisée is still seemingly too aloof and intellectual to appeal to the rank and file,” he said. “None of the PQ contenders can be considered as anything but a dreary continuation of the same principles that embody the nationalist doctrine that have driven so many in our community away from Quebec. The only caveat is that Lisée seems least enthusiastic about another referendum, which of course is what our community fears the most.

“I don’t think the PQ has a realistic chance of winning as their raison d’être seems to be a faded, tired concept that is out of touch with the modern realities of globalization and  the digital age. Polls now consistently show that young people do not support sovereignty any more. They were always the driving force behind the movement. The digital age now brings them more than ever, into the North American reality, which doesn’t spook them as much any more. The Liberal administration is struggling, however. Whether their fall translates into PQ gains or whether they can rebound, or whether the CAQ gains strength and comes up the middle are all possibilities moving forward. The election is still two years away, which is several eternities in politics.”

 Mike Cohen is B’nai Brith Canada’s Quebec news bureau chief, a veteran writer and municipal politician. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecohencsl