It no longer pays to talk about independence in Quebec. Just ask the Parti Quebecois.

The political force behind two referendums on separating from Canada and some of the province’s signature laws is headed for the worst electoral result in its 50-year history, polls ahead of the Oct. 1 vote show. Traditionally the main alternative to the ruling Liberal Party, it has found itself pushed to third place by an untested front-runner, Coalition Avenir Quebec, that wants to reduce immigration. For the first time in decades, independence is barely being mentioned on the campaign trail.

“Back in the day, people were either sovereigntists or federalists,” said Alain Giguere, the president of Montreal-based polling company Crop Inc. “This is no longer something that divides voters. The PQ is having trouble finding a new raison d’etre.”

For many, the party has come to symbolize a bygone era, when French speakers fought to protect their language and wrest more power out of the federal government. A lot of that has been achieved.

The province of 8.4 million people controls its immigration, collects its taxes, and has representatives abroad from Atlanta to Seoul. French is the official language in government and commerce, and access to education in English is restricted. What’s more, Quebec has recently been enjoying an economic renaissance, with near record-low unemployment and full-time jobs going unfilled.

“For a nationalist movement to lead to secession, you need a real sense of outrage” said Daniel Salee, a political scientist at Concordia University in Montreal. “Unfortunately for the sovereigntists, that sense of outrage has been gone for quite some time.”

In contrast, separatist aspirations are “alive and kicking” elsewhere in the world, according to Ryan Griffiths, a professor who specializes in secession at Syracuse University in New York state. That includes Catalonia and Scotland in Europe, and also French territory New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea’s Bougainville -- two South Pacific islands that have referendums coming up, he said.

In Quebec, two of the four main parties’ platforms call for independence, but neither plans to act on it quickly. Candidates have sparred over issues including immigration, access to family doctors and funding for the province’s aging public schools. Tellingly, even the first-ever televised debate in English this week left out sovereignty, focusing instead on diversity, the environment, and anglophones’ preparedness to work in French.

‘A Living Project’

Yet Jean-Francois Lisee, the head of the PQ who started his career as a journalist, said he hasn’t taken his eye off the ball. The party’s promises in this campaign include more commuter trains, the end of oil and gas exploration, and an expanded role for the province’s C$308 billion ($239 billion) pension fund manager that would include blocking foreign takeovers of Quebec-based companies to ensure their head offices stay put. But he plans to energize voters for a referendum during a second mandate -- which would be in 2022, assuming the PQ can claw its way back to power this year.

“Independence is a living project, which goes through valleys and mountains,” Lisee told reporters this month. “We have a plan to get there in two mandates.’

A Crop poll last month put support for an independent Quebec at 33 percent, compared with 49 percent in the 1995 referendum. Back then many who voted “yes” to independence shared a vision of Quebec as an open and inclusive society, an advanced form of social democracy, according to Anne Trepanier, a historian at Carleton University’s school of Canadian studies in Ottawa.

That was shattered when the leader at the time, Jacques Parizeau, blamed the defeat on “money and the ethnic vote,” pushing some separatists away from the PQ and later toward Quebec Solidaire, a left-leaning party founded in 2006, she said.

Left Versus Right

The split leaves staunch sovereigntist voters like Alex Curzi in a bind. At a debate last week in his Montreal neighborhood of Rosemont, he was a lone voice asking the local candidates -- Lisee among them -- to discuss the topic. “I really am in between both,” Curzi said afterward. “We’re in a kind of moment where the PQ is not to the left enough anymore, and Quebec Solidaire not sovereigntist enough.”

The PQ first rose to power in 1976 under the leadership of its founder Rene Levesque and elected six premiers, including the first woman, Pauline Marois. Its most famous policies include a 1977 law that enshrined French language rights and a highly subsidized child-care program that made Quebec a standout in Canada.

Yet despite recent gains in the polls and voters’ appetite for change, a victory still seems elusive for the PQ. Lisee has been appealing to separatists tempted by the generous social policies of Quebec Solidaire to vote strategically in order to defeat the more conservative Coalition Avenir Quebec, which absorbed the similarly minded Action Democratique du Quebec in 2012. Even voters who don’t want independence can try the PQ just for this mandate, he said.

“We have our faults, but we have been the most progressive government in North America every time we were in power,” Lisee said. “Everyone will be sorry on Oct. 1 if the progressive vote is divided and the CAQ wins.”