08/30/2011 05:16 EDT | Updated 10/30/2011 05:12 EDT

Raucous caucus: Parti Quebecois getting ready for possible stormy meeting

MONTREAL - The task before Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois appears straightforward: reassert control over a sovereigntist party that is splintering at the seams.

But all bets are off — this is the PQ, a party that has a rich history of turning on its leaders.

Marois begins a two-day caucus retreat on Wednesday in Saguenay, north of Quebec City. It comes as her leadership is being tested as never before.

In the past weeks, the fragmentation of Quebec's sovereigntist movement has picked up apace.

A group of disgruntled sovereigntists, including several notable PQ members, released a manifesto that called the party "used and confused." Its first meeting attracted some 400 people.

In the meantime, some ex-party members have begun expressing interest in Marois' job. And some current caucus members have been publicly offering policy advice that runs counter to her positions.

To make matters worse, the PQ has been tanking in recent polls. One recent sampling suggested the party was running a distant third, behind the governing Liberals and a hypothetical political party headed by Francois Legault, himself a one-time PQ cabinet minister.

"There is a storm right now, but I don't believe the captain should abandon the ship in the middle of a storm," Marois told reporters recently.

"I will steer this ship right again and the population of Quebec can have confidence in the Parti Quebecois."

As if to underscore the crucial test she faces over the next two days, former party stalwart Pierre Curzi mused openly that caucus members might ask her to step aside.

But Curzi, who quit caucus over disagreements with Marois, has also said he would run for the party's leadership were she to step down.

It is unclear how much leeway Marois will have to guide the ship toward safer waters. The PQ is notorious for turning on its leaders, a fate that has befallen several of her predecessors.

One of them argued the revolving door atop the PQ is not unique to the party.

Bernard Landry, who stepped down as PQ leader in 2003 after receiving a lukewarm approval rating from party members, downplayed the crisis as part of the life cycle of sovereigntist parties anywhere.

"Generally, parties seeking independence are turbulent because it is a very idealistic cause," said Landry, who was Quebec's premier from 2001-2003.

"After Ireland achieved independence, their separatists shot at each other with machine-guns. We're not there."

Yet Marois' fall from grace is all the more spectacular given she received a 93 per cent approval rating from party delegates this past spring. Opinion polls then suggested the PQ was a lock to form the next government.

It was Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume's unrelenting quest for a new NHL-style arena that arguably first knocked Marois' hand from the tiller.

Marois backed Labeaume as he sought support for special legislation that would protect his multimillion-dollar deal with a potential sponsor from any legal challenge.

That prompted several high-profile PQ caucus members to walk out.

Given these modest origins, Landry doesn't think the PQ's current crisis represents a fundamental rejection of the sovereigntist movement itself.

"(The crisis) is a little accidental, it is related to the arena in Quebec City," he said. "The destiny of the Quebec people is not being put in doubt."

Others are not so certain the problem is limited to unease within the PQ. They point to the near-total collapse of the Bloc Quebecois in the May federal election.

They also cite the popularity of Legault's coalition, which advocates putting the sovereignty question aside in order to concentrate on economic issues.

"There is an immediate, leadership crisis but there is also a structural crisis," said Pierre Beaudet, a sociology professor at the University of Ottawa.

"If you look at the situation since 1995, you see a long decline... there are fewer and fewer people who are voting for the Parti Quebecois, but they are not voting for other parties."

In that time, he said, the PQ has gradually drifted away from its roots as a social democratic party. That has left traditional supporters on the left, such as unions and women's groups, pursuing their goals outside the PQ.

For Beaudet, the entire sovereigntist cause is flagging under its inability to adapt to the evolving socio-economic climate.

Marois, he suggested, may only be able to do so much to rectify the situation.

"Everything is being centred on Pauline Marois at the moment, which is a bad thing for the Parti Quebecois," he said.

"All kinds of people are saying 'I will do it (lead the party),' but on which ideas? It's all a bit up in the air."