The Bloc Québécois suffered a blow as its leader Daniel Paillé stepped down for health reasons, setting off the search for a replacement who can bring attention to the struggling sovereigntist party.
On Monday, the 63-year-old Mr. Paillé announced he was retiring on his doctor's orders, after having been diagnosed with epilepsy. He said the situation is manageable and controllable, but not with the lifestyle of a political leader.
"I am leaving as a preventive measure, for me and the party," he said at a news conference.
Mr. Paillé called for privacy as he refused to lay out his specific symptoms, preferring to focus on the Bloc's plans for renewal in the next election. The party will hold a convention in 2014, and work to find candidates in every Quebec riding for the 2015 election.
"There is momentum within the Bloc; we have to keep up that momentum," Mr. Paillé said.
However, polls show that after getting trounced in the 2011 election, the Bloc Québécois has disappeared as a dominant force in its home province. Long-time leader Gilles Duceppe quit shortly after he lost in his own riding in the last election, and Mr. Paillé has struggled to fill his shoes.
According to an analysis by Influence Communication, Mr. Duceppe was regularly one of the top 10 newsmakers in Quebec, whereas Mr. Paillé didn't even crack the province's top 1,000 in 2013.
"He just didn't exist," said the firm's president, Jean-François Dumas. "In Quebec, the Bloc is a non-entity in terms of media profile."
A number of Bloc veterans and sovereigntist sources said there is no natural successor to Mr. Paillé. Bloc MP Jean-François Fortin ran for the leadership in 2011, but he has yet to build a significant public profile as a backbencher.
Mr. Duceppe, who has not taken any full-time position since his 2011 defeat, remains the subject of speculation, though some of his supporters said it is highly unlikely that he would return to Ottawa. The fact that Mr. Duceppe is opposed to the Parti Québécois charter of values in its current form, for example, would create tensions with sovereigntists in Quebec City if he were to return to the Bloc.
The Bloc was the dominant federal party in the province in the 1990s and 2000s, with its promise to "defend Quebec's interests" in Ottawa. The party was reduced to a four-MP caucus after the 2011 election, with most of its seats taken over by Jack Layton's NDP. The Bloc currently has four MPs, having won over NDP floor-crosser Claude Patry, but having kicked out Maria Mourani after she criticized the PQ charter of values banning overt religious symbols in the public sector.
Mr. Paillé, who sat in the House of Commons from 2009 to 2011, did not run for office after he became the Bloc leader. He complained at his news conference Monday that the media are rarely present when Bloc MPs speak in the House.
"If only you had been there," he told reporters when asked about the Bloc's struggles for visibility.
The party's popularity in Quebec remains weak. In a CROP poll conducted Dec. 4-9, only 17 per cent of respondents said they would vote for the Bloc, well behind the Liberals (36 per cent) and the NDP (30 per cent).
CROP vice-president Youri Rivest said the party needs to show that it remains a relevant political force, while finding a leader who is clearly different from NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
"They have to find a leader who can carry the day on files that showcase the cleavage between the Bloc and the other parties," Mr. Rivest said.
Party vice-president Annie Lessard will assume the interim leadership for Mr. Paillé. Bloc MP André Bellavance will act as the leader of the party's team in the House of Commons.
The rules for the selection of the next leader will be determined in early January. The party had 35,000 members in 2011, and is hoping to accumulate a $4-million war chest ahead of the next election.
With a report from Tu Thanh Ha