Gilles Duceppe, the longtime boss of the separatist Bloc Quebecois who resigned in 2011 following a landslide defeat for his party in that year’s federal election, emerged from the grave this week to reclaim his old job. In a surprise overnight coup, the party announced Wednesday morning that the obscure and unknown Mario Beaulieu, who had been elected Bloc leader almost exactly a year ago, would be stepping down immediately so the old boss could be installed in his place. Duceppe had opposed Beaulieu’s election in 2014, openly mocking his hardline rhetoric (which included spouting slogans from the 60s-era French-Canadian terrorist group the Front de Liberation du Quebec) as vulgar and unelectable.
Duceppe’s return to head a party he led for over 14 years represents a great many things. Most notably, it concludes an era of chronic instability in the post-2011 Bloc, which has seen an astonishing five leaders in as many years, thanks to persistent difficulty in scraping up a capable successor to Duceppe.
Having shrunk from 49 seats to four in 2011, the party proceeded to lose three more members in the years that followed — one via purge, two through defection. They’d be down to a single MP if not for Claude Patry, an NDP legislator who defected into the Bloc in 2013, thereby capping their net loss at two.
Ignored by the press and stagnant in the polls, these desperate times called for desperate measures. Duceppe may have led the party to its worst-ever defeat, but in 2004 he also led it to its best-ever showing (or at least a showing tied for best-ever), which was certainly more than could be said of the never-elected-to-anything Monsieur Beaulieu.
On the other hand, in reviving a leader who contested six of the seven elections of the party’s lifetime, the Bloc now looks more than ever like a personality-cult, a sort of more successful version of Elizabeth May’s Green Party in which a gaggle of disparate interests are held together by the sheer magnetism of a compelling personality. Duceppe is fast approaching 70 and even leaders-for-life can’t dodge expiration dates forever. If the Bloc’s greatest existential weakness is its lack of a succession plan, it’s hard to see Duceppe’s return as anything but a rescheduled judgment day.
It’s premature to say how much of a wrench Duceppe 3.0 will be in the delicate machinery of Canada’s other parties, but early reports suggest Thomas Mulcair’s NDP has the most to lose.
For the last few weeks Canada’s papers have been filled with breathless coverage of a narrow NDP lead in the national polls, a lead that is, at least in part, heavily dependent on an enormous, 20-point lead in the province of Quebec.
The NDP’s near-sweep of that province in 2011 was unprecedented and unexpected, and barring a follow-up election for context, most political observers still struggle to describe exactly what it meant.
In abandoning the Bloc, did Quebec’s NDP voters express a sort of born-again loyalty to Ottawa?
Were they genuinely interested in making the NDP’s anti-separatist boss prime minister of Canada? Or were they merely electing a slew of largely unknown and inexperienced NDP MPs to express a fresh flavor of French-Canadian disregard for the understood purpose of federal politics?
Or perhaps it was something more utilitarian in its parochialism? Was the NDP, the only party in 2011 other than the Bloc with a Quebec-born leader, simply deemed the most trustworthy steward of Quebec interests in Ottawa?
If the latter is true, then Mulcair may have much to fear from the return of a Bloc leader who vows to be “the voice of a party that is Quebec first, Quebec all the time!” (his emphasis). Duceppe certainly poses little threat to Prime Minister Harper’s Conservatives, who have now more or less stopped seeking votes in the left-wing province in favor of doubling-down on a centre-right agenda of lowering taxes and jailing criminals that’s proven to play well in Anglo Canada.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, meanwhile, have cause for optimism at the sight of Mulcair’s NDP and a reinvigorated Bloc competing for a shared base of alienated, self-centered Francophones. Ranked third choice in the province, a vote split among anti-establishment, uber-nationalist progressives could produce more than a few come-from-the-middle wins for a party that’s neither. No Liberal prime minister has ever been elected without a strong Quebec delegation, but this strength can be supplementary so long as enough seats are won elsewhere.
Canada’s majority looks on as an exotic minority decides its priorities. As usual, their answer could be decisive.