03/27/2012 05:05 EDT | Updated 05/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Can Mulcair Really Keep the Quebec Vote?


Challenges lie ahead for the NDP following the election of a new party leader in the form of Thomas Mulcair this past weekend.

For starters, Mulcair is viewed by many New Democrats as being both too new to the party and too far to the right of the party's traditional consensus. This prompted an outburst from former party leader Ed Broadbent, taking aim at Mulcair's allegedly centrist policies. This discord in the party's inner circles manifested itself following Mulcair's victory through the resignation of several key party strategists.

Mulcair has many fences to mend if he is to bring a divided party together. The size of this challenge is increased when we take note of the fact that Mulcair's victory was achieved with a very low turnout -- only half of card-carrying NDP members chose to cast a ballot at all.

However, as the leader of a party with a majority of its seats in Quebec but an overwhelming majority of its grassroots base outside that province, Mulcair's main task will be to find a way to hold on to as many of the NDP's seats in Quebec as possible.

There seems to be consensus among political commentators that Mulcair is better placed than the leadership candidates he defeated to keep Quebec in the NDP fold. After all, he is a known quantity in the province after having served in Jean Charest's provincial Liberal government. The other candidates barely register in la belle province.

However, how much of the ability of the NDP to keep its Quebec bloc of seats is in Thomas Mulcair's hands? The answer likely depends on the result of the next provincial election in Quebec, likely to be held this year.

Recent polls have put the Parti Québécois in majority territory. A PQ government in Quebec City may plunge the country into another national unity crisis, and this is bad news for the NDP.

In times of crisis, Quebeckers are likely to seek clarity. Federalists are likely to flock toward the Liberal Party who -- unlike the NDP -- agrees with the 1998 Supreme Court of Canada's "Reference re: Secession of Quebec's" requirement of a clear majority in favour of independence on a clear question in order for Quebec separation to be legally achieved. A Harper-led Conservative Party -- known now for tough-on-crime measures and the abolition of the long gun registry -- is unlikely to have a dog in the fight.

Similarly, sovereigntists in Quebec would become increasingly likely to return to the Bloc Québécois fold, depending on the timing of a possible referendum. It is hard to see how so many of those voting "Yes" in a referendum would turn around and vote for a nominally federalist party such as the NDP shortly thereafter.

It's important to note the NDP's gains -- representing more than 30 full percentage points in Quebec -- in the last election were made at the expense of both federalist and sovereigntist parties. The Liberals lost nearly ten points, the Tories five and the Bloc -- the largest casualty, of course -- losing 15 points between 2008 and 2011.

Thomas Mulcair's status as a known quantity and his efforts to organize the NDP in Quebec between now and the next election will count for something, of course. Hence, an agitating PQ government in Quebec may well produce something resembling a three-way split between the Liberals, NDP and the Bloc in Quebec in 2015. This would appear to be unprecedented in recent Canadian history, seeing as Quebec's seats have traditionally either been split two ways or have gone overwhelmingly to one party.

Hence, Mulcair's best bet to keep the NDP's coalition of federalists and sovereigntists together is to hold out for a Liberal victory in Quebec's upcoming provincial fight. With that battle likely to take place merely months from now, however, it's uncertain that Mulcair himself will be able to do much to affect the result.