As the Coalition Avenir Québec holds its founding convention, it finds itself with the unexpected challenge of rebuilding party support.
Following Leader François Legault's announcement of the creation of the new party last fall, the CAQ quickly tapped into voters thirst for change and surged to almost 40 per cent in the polls. Since then, party support has dropped by almost half, leaving the CAQ struggling to once again become a credible political alternative.
"It's a key weekend, it's a key step for us. Because, for the first time we will gather 500 people from different regions … people who, for the first time, have come over from the Liberals, the Parti Québécois and the ADQ," Mr. Legault said Friday just before the opening of his party's first convention. "It is risky, it's a major challenge and I hope that by tomorrow (Saturday) we will have a program supported by a majority of members."
As party delegates gathered for their first convention, Mr. Legault argued that it was unrealistic to expect a new party to consolidate such a sudden rise in support over such a short period of time.
"I don't see the drop in the polls as a slide. It was unrealistic for a new party to be at 30 or 40 per cent. After five months to be over 20 per cent is beyond our dream.," Mr. Legault said.
Voter support dropped considerably after the CAQ merged with the Action démocratique du Québec Party, an alliance that appeared to tarnish Mr. Legault's ability to project himself as an agent of change.
However, the CAQ Leader argued that voter volatility was such that it has made it difficult for any party to claim certain victory.
The major challenge facing the party is to come out of the convention united around a clear party program, one that will position the CAQ at the centre of the political spectrum.
"I don't consider myself on the right wing," Mr. Legault said, taking exception at being compared to Alberta's Wildrose Party. Yet on important social issues, the party will debate several right-of-centre proposals such as more private health-care services and stricter controls over labour organizations.
For Mr. Legault, the convention represents an important step forward in convincing voters that the CAQ represents change. Specifically, moving away from the federalist-sovereigntist divide that has dominated Quebec politics for decades.
The party currently has 45 candidates and Mr. Legault said it would be ready to field candidates in all 125 ridings if an election was called this spring. Few prominent names have come forward, but party strategists say this will change once the election is called.
"We have the funding, we have the candidates, we are ready for a campaign," he insisted.
The party has had to confront major obstacles in recruiting candidates, with Mr. Legault accusing the Liberals of lobbying important business leaders and potential candidates from running under the CAQ banner.
"When you control the grants, it makes it easier to discourage people from running for us," he said.
Should the campaign be held this spring, Mr. Legault will take aim at Premier Jean Charest's leadership and attack the Liberals' handling of the economy and their inability to avoid social unrest.
The CAQ leader strongly criticized Mr. Charest's recent jokes about the rioting students in Montreal during a speech to promote his government's plan to develop northern Quebec' natural resources.
It was unacceptable for the Premier to joke about the student strike, he said, which has disrupted universities and colleges for almost ten weeks.
"He (Mr. Charest) expressed arrogance at a time when a riot was going on in Montreal. Mr. Charest did not respect the students today. … It is sad to say, but today Quebec had no Premier. He dishonored the office," Mr. Legault said "We cannot afford to continue like this in Quebec. These are our children that are in the streets."