Not since 1994 has the Parti Québécois swept the Gaspé region ridings of Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Gaspé and Bonaventure. But as Pauline Marois swung through the region, capping a first week of campaigning, the PQ's confidence in repeating the exploit of 18 years ago was palpable.
One reason is that the riding boundaries have been altered and many voters are dissatisfied with the changes. The PQ has also recruited candidates with local stature and strong ties to their communities.
With changes announced by the Harper government regarding employment insurance and the raising of age of retirement, voters in the Gaspé region have grown increasingly irritated with the federal government and are looking to Quebec to step in and defend their interests. This explains in part why sovereigntists here embrace the PQ strategy of going toe to toe with Ottawa to take back control of certain powers and programs, including employment insurance.
Unemployment, poverty and an aging population are underlying factors in this campaign, compounded by the anger over allegations of corruption that have plagued Jean Charest's Liberal government.
"What we have are liberal-conservatives," said the PQ candidate for the riding of Bonaventure, Sylvain Roy. "We have a right to live decently in our region. … Their objective is to weaken Quebec and our aspirations as a nation."
At a time when accusations of corruption and waste of public funds has become the main issue of the Quebec election campaign, the PQ in the Gaspé region is positioning itself as the only viable alternative. In the past the now defunct Action Démocratique du Québec party hardly registered on the political barometer. And there is no indication that upstart Coalition Avenir Québec will do much better here.
For voters seeking change and wishing to register a protest vote in the region, the PQ remains the only game in town.
The party has set up a strong grassroots organization that even in the middle of a hot and muggy election campaign has so far succeeded in mobilizing supporters far more extensively than in recent elections. But that doesn't mean that the PQ objective of sweeping all the ridings in the region on Sept. 4 will be easy.
Bonaventure, for instance, has been a Liberal stronghold for decades. The PQ victory in 1994 had much to do with desire for change following the demise of the Liberal government of Robert Bourassa and his successor, Daniel Johnson. The pendulum swung back in the Liberals' favour in the following election.
It is still early in the campaign and even Ms. Marois conceded that voter hesitation in throwing their support unconditionally behind the PQ was her prime concern. No doubt she will be back in the Gaspé region in the hunt for one of the breakthroughs the PQ must have if it is to form the next government.