11/01/2011 04:08 EDT | Updated 01/01/2012 05:12 EST

Damocles Duceppe hangs over PQ amid grumbling about current leader

QUEBEC - Just call him Damocles Duceppe — the sword conspicuously dangling over the embattled leader of the Parti Quebecois.

Just months after his Bloc Quebecois was annihilated in a federal election campaign, Gilles Duceppe is being touted as a potential saviour for the suffering sister party in Quebec City.

A PQ veteran told reporters Tuesday near the provincial legislature that leader Pauline Marois has six months to improve her poll numbers or step aside.

Otherwise, it's Duceppe's turn.

''I'm convinced that Mme Marois has the same read on the situation as all the MNAs who support her — that we're at the bottom of the barrel and we're going to climb," said longtime legislator Claude Pinard.

''Now, if she's not able to get back on top, do you really think she'll go to the (electoral) slaughterhouse? I don't think so.''

The renewed dissent comes less than a week after Marois emerged from an emotional caucus meeting to declare she will lead her party into the next provincial election.

Members of the pro-independence PQ have been worried that against all odds and despite a string of scandals plaguing the Charest government, they are still behind in the polls.

Internal grumbling forced Marois to call an emergency meeting last week, which appeared to temporarily silence the grumbling.

But a poll released several days later, suggesting Duceppe was far more popular and might be the only hope of reviving the PQ's popularity, has quickly poured gasoline on the simmering dissent.

Asked by reporters whether he would prefer to see Marois or Duceppe leading the PQ, Pinard gave an answer that hardly indicated blinding loyalty to Marois.

''Today it's Mme Marois, but if polls have us in the same place in six months, I won't even have to think twice,'' he said.

He also sang the praises of Duceppe, referring to his political "strength" and calling him the PQ's "ace in the hole."

It would be quite the improbable turnaround if Duceppe wound up getting a political promotion — which is certainly the case in any move from a Bloc Quebecois in perpetual opposition to a Parti Quebecois that hopes to govern and create a country.

Because the independence movement is led largely out of Quebec City, Duceppe spent years in Ottawa in a role analogous to that of a successful minor-league coach.

What's surprising is the timing of his new status as the heir-apparent to take over the big-league club — the PQ, which has governed Quebec for 18 of the last 35 years and twice held independence referendums.

Duceppe has just suffered the most lopsided defeat of his political career. After a sudden and spectacular shift during the last federal election campaign, his once-mighty party was left with only four seats.

Marois' leadership troubles began a year ago, when a group of young Pequistes signed a public letter expressing dissatisfaction with her approach to achieving independence.

The same youthful dissenters rubbed salt in the wound in an interview this week. Felix-Antoine Dumais-Michaud et Jean-Francois Landry said Marois should reveal a clearer pro-independence strategy or relinquish the leadership.

(With files from Martin Ouellet in Quebec City and Philippe Teisceira-Lessard in Montreal)