It was only a matter of time before the referendum controversy that has dogged the Parti Québécois in recent months would force itself into Quebec's election campaign. Now, confusion over PQ Leader Pauline Marois's position on the controversial issue has placed her in quite a predicament.
The PQ hasn't had a clear referendum strategy to achieve sovereignty since Jacques Parizeau was party leader. In the 1994 election he promised that if elected, he would hold a referendum "eight to ten months" after taking power. The Bloc Québécois leader at the time Lucien Bouchard tried repeatedly to stop Mr. Parizeau, but the best he could do was to delay the holding of the referendum by a couple of months.
After losing the referendum by the slimmest of margins in 1995, the PQ has grappled with ambiguity, misperceptions and confusion over the holding of another referendum.
For the last 17 years, no clear referendum strategy has emerged within the PQ. The party leaders refused to commit to another vote largely out of fear of losing it, as if victory needed to be a certainty before setting the date of another referendum. The more the PQ hesitated, the more it became clear for many nationalist Quebeckers that sovereignty had become nothing more than a dream.
Mr. Bouchard, who took over the leadership of the PQ in 1996, promised that a referendum would only be held only if the "winning conditions" would be met. He never explained what those "winning conditions" would be. By the time Mr. Bouchard quit politics in 2001, the situation over a referendum on sovereignty remained as chaotic as ever within the party.
Bernard Landry, who replaced Mr. Bouchard as party leader, did nothing to clarify the strategy. He promised to hold a referendum only if he had "the moral assurance of winning." But who would determine that so-called "moral assurance," and how much time would it take to achieve this political state of mind?
Under Ms. Marois, the PQ has found a new motto. A referendum would be held "at the moment deemed appropriate." Again, questions were raised as to how that moment would be found appropriate.
The PQ's refusal to firmly commit to a clear strategy to achieve sovereignty gave birth to other pro-sovereignty parties, including Quebec Solidaire in 2006 with its more left-wing social-democratic platform. In 2007, the PQ was relegated to third-party status under the crippled leadership of André Boisclair. Some observers believed that the sovereignist party was on its last leg. Though the PQ re-emerged as the Official Opposition in 2008, Ms. Marois has shut down caucus members' attempts to forge a more aggresive strategy.
Tensions blew over in June, 2011. Four caucus members quit the PQ, partly over Ms. Marois's refusal to pursue a clear agenda for political independence. Jean-Martin Aussant was among them along with Mr. Parizeau's wife Lisette Lapointe, who has supported Mr. Aussant's new pro-independence party Option nationale. The creation of this new party was the ultimate expression of disappointment stemming from Ms. Marois's refusal to commit to holding a referendum.
In order to appease dissent within the party, Ms. Marois accepted a proposal from the more militant wing of the party to allow for citizen initiated referendums. Last February, Ms. Marois said she would adopt a bill stating that if 15 per cent of eligible voters from all regions of the province – about 850,000 Quebeckers – signed a registry calling for a referendum, a PQ government would carry out their wishes. It was a last-ditch effort to fend off attacks on her leadership. At the time, the strategy worked to contain the revolt but now it may be backfiring under her opponents' charges that she bowed to the radical elements in her party.
Ms. Marois said this week that even if enough Quebeckers petitioned for a referendum on sovereignty, she could veto it if necessary.
In other words, a PQ government would never allow a referendum on sovereignty to be held unless it had full control over the timing and a firm grip over the process.
"I have to be responsible," Ms. Marois said. " And I would take a decision that would be the best for the population of Quebec."
In other words there would be no referendum on sovereignty unless Ms. Marois had the certainty of winning. But there can never be certainty about winning a referendum on Quebec independence. Quebec society has proven to be too divided on the issue. In all likelihood, Ms. Marois will continue to balk at the idea. And those who still believed that they could rekindle the hope of holding a referendum any time soon with a PQ victory will find themselves bitterly disappointed.