Gilles Duceppe’s return as leader of the Bloc Québécois just in time for the fall federal election is first and foremost the Hail Mary pass of a party that has run out of options. Since he was elected a year ago, the party’s current leader—Mario Beaulieu—has presided over a caucus exodus. Only one of the four MPs elected under the party’s banner in 2011 still belongs to the Bloc. Polls also suggest that the advent of Pierre Karl Péladeau as Parti Québécois leader stands to do little for the federal party’s flagging fortunes. Based on the results of the first two provincial byelections held on his watch as leader, PKP may actually scare away more soft nationalist voters than he attracts. Premier Philippe Couillard scored two wins on Monday—including a decisive upset victory at the expense of the Coalition Avenir Québec—but it was not because a re-energized PQ split the opposition vote in favour of the ruling Liberals. In the Quebec City riding of Chauveau, the CAQ saw a 10,000-strong majority in the general election melt away. The Liberals won the seat by 1,700 votes. Despite a half-dozen Péladeau visits to the riding, the PQ managed to raise its support from 12 per cent under Pauline Marois to only 15 per cent. Surprise at the notion that in the face of a polarizing PQ leader such as Péladeau, non-sovereigntist voters would default to the strongest federalist option on the ballot should be tempered by the fact that this is exactly what happened in last year’s Quebec election. Back then, the arrival of the fist-waving PKP as a star recruit went a long way to turn the campaign into a referendum on a referendum. An election that had been premier Marois’ to lose turned into Couillard’s majority victory. (As an aside, before concluding that a possible return to the sovereigntist/federalist polarization bodes well for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, consider that the NDP has replaced his party as the top federalist option in francophone Quebec.) This is the second time that Duceppe takes the Bloc reins in the immediate lead-up to an election. He took over from Michel Gauthier only a few months before Jean Chrétien called the 1997 election. The similarities stop there. In 1997, the Bloc was the major federal force in Quebec, with incumbents solidly in place across its francophone territory. With the first federal campaign that will see the party start from behind only a summer away, the Bloc still has to nominate candidates in two-thirds of the province’s ridings. And then the 1997 election battle—taking place as it did only two years after the near-victory of the sovereigntist option in a referendum—was mostly fought along the unity divide. As Duceppe found out at his own expense four years ago, a critical number of Quebecers have moved on since then, and while he is personally still held in high esteem he may be projecting his own nostalgia for politics onto the well-wishers who have had good words for him over his forced retirement. As former prime minister Joe Clark can testify, it is dangerous to confuse expressions of political condolences for an invitation to rise from the grave. Still, beggars can’t be choosers and, at this juncture, both Duceppe and the Bloc were at loose ends. The first always lived like a politician-in-exile while the second has failed to find an effective replacement. There is no doubt that Duceppe is better placed than anyone else in sight to—even if it is only by a few political millimetres. Given the state of the party, this is not a task that he could have facilitated from the sidelines. In particular, sovereigntist strategists wanted him on the podium of the election debates and the only way to achieve that was to have Beaulieu step aside in his favour. Duceppe will bring to that podium more debate experience than any of the other federal leaders and as high a profile as his competition. The Quebec battle will be more interesting for his return but it is anyone’s guess whether it will ultimately be a lot more competitive. Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer for The Toronto Star. This column was released on June 10.