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Leadership choice a pivotal moment for the Parti Québécois

Parti Quebecois leadership candidate Jean-Francois Lisee speaks at the last debate before the leadership, Monday, October 3, 2016 in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

The Parti Québécois will choose the ninth leader in its history on Friday. The decision promises to be momentous.

The choice for Quebec's pre-eminent sovereigntist party boils down to a pair of former provincial cabinet ministers: Alexandre Cloutier, a 39-year-old who has run a milquetoast frontrunner's campaign; and 58-year-old ex-journalist and party strategist Jean-François Lisée, who has dragged the race down into the muck of identity politics.

Mr. Lisée has railed against Muslim religious garb and falsely linked his main opponent to a familiar bogeyman, Islamist provocateur and one-time terror suspect Adil Charkaoui. He has also sketched out a vision of "perfect" immigration. Surprise, it hails from primarily white European cities.

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Where outcry has ensued, Mr. Lisée has nuanced, equivocated and occasionally doubled down. It is a contemptible brand of politics. And it has worked marvellously. If the initial odds favoured Mr. Cloutier, the late momentum is squarely behind Mr. Lisée.

Thus, it is entirely possible the PQ will once again choose odious xenophobic dog-whistles over mainstream inclusiveness. Part of it is the lure of power: Polls show Mr. Lisée is a more likely candidate to defeat unpopular Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard's Liberals.

But if naked appeals to the danker corners of ethnic nationalism are a decent option for winning leadership races, or ramping up a fading party's short-term fortunes, history shows they are not popular with general-election voters.

The PQ snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the 2014 general election, when it led in the polls but campaigned on the odious Charter of Values and was crushed on election day.

Mr. Lisée has hedged his nativist bet by saying he would postpone any vote on independence until at least 2022. He hopes that, by doing so, the Liberals won't be able to pick off voters who don't want to go through another referendum.

But in doing so, he is misdiagnosing what it was that reduced the PQ to 30 seats in 2014. It was the reductive fearmongering of the Charter of Values that did the party in, not referendum fatigue.

The party of René Lévesque has been declining steadily for the past two decades. The membership could pick Mr. Cloutier over Mr. Lisée to try to stop the slide. If they choose Mr. Lisée, he may prove to be just the man to seal the PQ's demise.

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