‘Underdog’ Lisée looks to pull off upset in Quebec provincial election

PQ leader Jean-Francois Lisee greets supporters as he steps off his bus during a campaign stop in Chambly, Que. on Friday, August 24, 2018. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Jean-François Lisée invokes two sources of inspiration when asked about his chances of winning the Quebec election: late sovereigntist premier René Lévesque, and a caped, cartoon dog.

The Parti Québécois leader recently posted a short clip of the 1960s show called “Underdog,” on his Facebook page, accompanied by a message.

“Just a warning: Underdog always triumphs!” wrote Lisee, referring to the show’s theme song.

READ MORE: Parti Québécois unveils campaign bus, asks voters to take them ‘seriously’

Lisée, 60, has made it clear he’s unfazed by polls that place his party firmly in third place, well behind the governing Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec.

He points out that Lévesque, a hero to the province’s sovereigntists, was not orginally favoured to win the Quebec election in 1976.

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And Lisée also mentions he was not expected to win the party’s leadership race in 2016, when he overtook early favourite Alexandre Cloutier with a campaign that focused on identity and immigration issues and a promise to not hold a sovereignty referendum in his first mandate as premier.

READ MORE: Decision Quebec: A look at Parti Québécois of 2018

First elected in 2012, Lisée was the cabinet minister responsible for international relations and the Montreal region in the Pauline Marois government.

He was re-elected in 2014, when the PQ managed to win only 30 of the province’s 125 ridings.

Since taking over his party’s top spot, the one-time adviser to Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard has shown he’s not afraid to make controversial statements, even if they occasionally backfire.

In 2017, his party introduced a symbolic motion in the legislature calling on merchants to greet customers with a simple “bonjour,” instead of the bilingual “bonjour-hi” that has become customary in Montreal.

READ MORE: PQ leader not worried about trailing in polls

When its unanimous adoption caused widespread outrage among the English-speaking community, much of it directed at Premier Philippe Couillard, Lisée openly bragged he’d set “the oldest trap in the book” to make the Liberals look weak on language.

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“I simply showed, (for) everyone to see, that when they pretend to further French, it’s a facade,” he said.

“So I think I rendered a service to everyone, in French and English Canada to say, ‘Look at these guys. They don’t really mean it.'”

However, earlier this year Lisée was forced to revise his own words after saying he wanted a fence built near a Quebec-New York border crossing that is popular with asylum seekers.

He later nuanced his comment by saying he actually meant the road should be blocked off with a sign, a hedge, or a small fence similar to the type found in schools.

WATCH: Quebec’s provincial election campaign kicks off

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Quebec’s provincial election campaign kicks off – Aug 23, 2018

But while Lisée may be on familiar territory when it comes to his underdog status, his promise to not hold a referendum until at least 2022 if he wins the Oct.1 election puts his party into uncharted waters.

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His decision means that for the first time in 50 years, Quebecers will experience an election campaign where the choice between federalism and sovereignty is unlikely to be the major issue.

Instead, Lisée is banking on his party’s left-of-centre platform, which includes promises to reinvest in health and education rather than tax cuts or austerity.

READ MORE: Quebec’s political parties try to woo voters as election campaign begins

Some federalist voters do appear to be ready to consider options beyond the Liberals they’ve long favoured — but so far, that has been to the advantage of the CAQ rather than Lisée’s party.

But a recent poll also suggests that 45 per cent of voters are undecided — meaning any party can still win.

Lisée faces several challenges in the campaign — including a stiff one in his own Montreal riding of Rosemont, where polls suggest he’s in a tight race with Québec solidaire candidate Vincent Marissal, and CAQ candidate Sonya Cormier.

READ MORE: Parti Québécois launches new ad campaign making fun of itself

But perhaps his greatest challenge is luring voters back to his party — especially young ones who appear less interested in sovereignty and the language and identity politics that appeal to some members of the party’s older base.

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In a recent event at Concordia University, Lisee made his pitch, saying the PQ is the party with the most young voters, and expressing his belief they would eventually carry the province to sovereignty.

“Why is the Parti Québécois the party of youth? Because we carry the idea of a new country,” he said.

“A new country, the youngest country in the world, the day after Quebec’s independence, that will be Quebec.”

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