06/17/2014 09:59 EDT

Mario Beaulieu's Ascension To Bloc Throne Plays Into Hands Of Rivals

At a time when support for the Parti Québécois and sovereignty is at historic ebbs, the Bloc Québécois has chosen an ardent sovereigntist as its new leader.

Bloc members opted last weekend to replace Daniel Paillé, who resigned as leader late last year due to health reasons, with Mario Beaulieu, a former head of the Société-Saint-Jean-Baptiste who has pledged to put the drive for independence at the forefront of all of the party's activities. It is a significant change of direction for the Bloc that should play right into the hands of its federalist adversaries.

After the failed 1995 referendum, the Bloc Québécois under Gilles Duceppe took on the mantle of the defender of Quebec's interests and the province's voice in Ottawa. It was a successful strategy, as the party never won less than a majority of Quebec's seats before the disastrous showing of 2011. As Quebecers increasingly checked out of the federal system, the Bloc was a useful watchdog in the House of Commons for sovereigntists and nationalists alike.

This put the Bloc in a terrific position following the sponsorship scandal and subsequent discrediting of the Liberal Party in Quebec. With no plausible alternative in the province, the Bloc was at the peak of its influence in the minority years of 2004 to 2011, when the party was routinely polling at well over 40 per cent and could decide the fate of governments.

The Bloc's 2011 defeat and the struggles of the Parti Quebecois in the 2012 and 2014 provincial elections (recall that, despite forming government in 2012, the PQ still took just 32 per cent of the vote) make a move towards sovereignty as the Bloc's raison d’être an odd move. The PQ was en route to re-election earlier this year until the question of independence took over the campaign. Since then, the PQ has fallen to about 20 per cent and support for sovereignty has dropped to just one-in-three.

Beaulieu has long been an advocate of a sovereignty-first policy for the PQ at the provincial scene, and will now do the same with the federal BQ. But Quebec independence cannot occur via Ottawa, making the Bloc's new role as an advocate for the option an awkward one. Only the PQ, after forming government in Quebec City, can hold a referendum on independence. The Bloc can just be a powerless cheerleader in Ottawa.

Divisions within the already small party are emerging, as Duceppe denounced some of the language used by Beaulieu in his acceptance speech. On the other hand, Beaulieu received the support of sovereigntist luminaries like Bernard Landry and Pierre Curzi, suggesting that a solid base of die-hard sovereigntists were behind his surprise victory. Indeed, if more Bloc members had considered a Beaulieu win as a potential outcome, probably more would have cast a ballot for moderate MP André Bellavance. Less than 60 per cent of the Bloc's 19,000 members voted, and slightly more than 50 per cent chose Beaulieu.

He may be well known within sovereigntist circles but Beaulieu does not have a high public profile. And without a seat in the House, like his predecessor Paillé, that profile will be difficult to build. Bellavance, perhaps just as unknown, at least had the platform — and full-time salary — of a member of Parliament, not to mention the support of his three colleagues in the House.

Though Bellavance was unlikely to give the Bloc a new lease on life, the New Democrats and Liberals must still be pleased that the Bloc chose Beaulieu instead. With a hardline sovereigntist at the helm, the Bloc will have a more difficult time exploiting the difficulties a federalist party can have trying to speak for both Quebec and the rest of Canada. This was always going to be the Achilles' heel of the NDP, which made big inroads in francophone, soft-nationalist Quebec in 2011. Now that Beaulieu will talk just of independence, he has made things significantly easier for Thomas Mulcair.

The same goes for Justin Trudeau. Before, a more inclusive leader like Bellavance might have been able to claim that the Trudeau Liberals could never speak for nationalist Quebecers, considering the history of tense relations between Quebec and the Liberal leader's father. Now, Beaulieu turns the debate into a unity issue, one that the Liberals have used with great success in the past. Both Mulcair and Trudeau can now make greater claim of being able to represent all Quebecers, not just sovereigntists.

Certainly, the Bloc's move gives the party a much clearer role than it had previously. It no longer overlaps with any of the federalist parties whatsoever. A solid sovereigntist core of some 20 to 25 per cent of Quebecers remains to the party, enough to win a handful of seats depending on how the vote splits between the other major parties in Quebec.

But the days of Bloc dominance in the province, and the influence that carried in minority parliaments, are unlikely to be repeated any time soon.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers every week. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.

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