National Affairs column
Going, going, gone? First the Bloc Québécois lost all but four Quebec seats and party status in the House of Commons. Then Daniel Paillé - the man tasked to lead it out of the wilderness - quit before leading the BQ in a single campaign. Now the party may remain leaderless until the eve of the next federal election in 2015.
A scenario to be discussed by the party executive this weekend would see the vote to select Paillé’s successor postponed for a year. As things stand, that amounts to delaying the decision to take a comatose patient off life support in the hope that someone comes up with a miraculous cure in the interval.
The only contest triggered by Paillé’s resignation for health reasons last month was a race between those who were on the Bloc's A-list of potential contenders to be the first to take himself or herself out of contention.
One after the other former leader Gilles Duceppe, ex-premier Bernard Landry and a handful of past and present sovereigntist luminaries ruled out running for the job.
If the federal party sticks to the plan of a leadership campaign this year, the quest for Paillé’s successor will unfold in a remote corner of the media radar and the first order of business of the winner will be to overcome a quasi-terminal case of political obscurity.
At this juncture Bloc officials are not even certain that they can get the attention of the party's shrinking membership long enough to focus on selecting a leader. The official rationale for considering a delay is that a federal leadership campaign this year stands to be eclipsed by a possible Quebec election. What is left unsaid is that the provincial election could be the next-to-last chapter in the Bloc's life.
A best-case scenario for the BQ would see the Parti Québécois win a majority government sometime in 2014 and set out to build on that victory to generate the momentum for a winning referendum.
With another vote on Quebec's political future at least hypothetically in the window, a high-profile sovereigntist would volunteer to lead the Bloc in the 2015 election and the federal party would appeal to all like-minded voters to rally behind it as part of the larger pro-sovereigntist offensive.
This optimal scenario is hardly a fail-safe one.
For all of the PQ's rhetoric, a substantial majority of Quebecers do not want to revisit the issue of their political future.
Even if Pauline Marois succeeds in securing a majority mandate later this year, there are at least even odds that some nationalist voters will use the subsequent federal election to temper the PQ's referendum ardour by steering clear of the Bloc.
The pattern of blowing hot and cold on sovereignty is a familiar one in Quebec. It has been a feature of virtually every vote - federal and provincial - since the 1995 referendum. But in the alternative of a PQ defeat provincially, it is hard to see how the Bloc could ever reverse its slide into oblivion.
With sovereignty off the immediate agenda, the party would be left with little more than the shreds of a narrative to entice Quebecers to support it. That would be a tall order for any leader, let alone a low-profile one.
Almost one in four Quebecers (23 per cent) voted for the Bloc in 2011. If the party was no longer on the federal ballot or if it was there in little more than in name in 2015, not all of its supporters would move on.
For some diehard sovereigntists, staying home on election day is a preferable to supporting a federalist party. But the votes of a significant number of orphaned Bloc sympathizers would still be up for grabs, mainly by the NDP and/or the Liberals.
And that means the Quebec election - bound as it almost certainly is to come before Canada next heads to the polls - will go a long way to determine the 2015 federal dynamics in the province.
The Bloc's reluctance to pick a leader before them essentially confirms as much.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her columns are distributed by Torstar Syndication Services.