Ballots in the Quebec election will be counted next Tuesday, September 4. With a week to go, almost nobody believes the Quebec Liberals will be re-elected. Indeed, Premier Jean Charest looks in danger of losing his own seat.
The Coalition for the Future of Quebec, or CAQ, headed by former Parti Québécois (PQ) minister François Legault, is cutting into Liberal support in Francophone Quebec, particularly in the vote-rich 450 area code in suburban Montreal and the Quebec City region. The Liberals are polling less than 20 per cent among Francophones, who represent about 80 per cent of the population.
Legault offers voters a moratorium on sovereignty debates for 10 years. Claiming the "caribous" in the PQ (the hard-liners who place Quebec independence before all other goals) are in charge of his former party, he wants PQ supporters to join him in defeating a Liberal government tainted by construction contract scandals. The CAQ electoral program signals yet more attacks on Quebec social democracy weakened after three terms of the Charest government, a.k.a. the dark era lite.
Vote splitting between the CAQ and the Liberals favours the election of a PQ government headed by Pauline Marois, who would be the first woman to be premier of Quebec. Splits within the sovereignty movement and tensions within the PQ itself are expected to produce a minority, not a majority government, for the PQ.
The story of the election campaign to date is the stellar performance by Françoise David of Québec Solidaire (QS) in the four party leaders' television debate hosted by Radio-Canada. Fully 40 per cent of viewers picked her as the winner.
QS held one seat at dissolution and believes it can win five or six more. These seats would come at the expense of the PQ, and support for the QS could deny the PQ a majority, or even a plurality (most seats) next Tuesday.
Françoise David, when asked about the effect her party might have in denying the PQ a victory, responded pointedly that the PQ had to live in the political world they helped create, one without proportional representation (as promised by PQ founder René Lévesque).
When René Lévesque left the Liberal party in 1967, it was for the purposes of achieving sovereignty-association for Quebec. The PQ was a coalition that included important support from left activists who were prepared to put the national question first, if not formally join the party. When the PQ won government in 1976, and in subsequent elections, its "centrist" approach on some socio-economic questions progressively alienated enough people on the left that the QS emerged, as did an internal opposition, SPQ Libre.
The Marois PQ has been divided between a pragmatic group that wants to govern Quebec, and an idealist group that sees Quebec independence as the goal. For the idealists within the PQ, Marois is too pragmatic; on the campaign trail, the Quebec population wants to know if Marois is pragmatic enough.
On the left of the spectrum, the PQ has to deal not only with QS but with the Green Party, and a small breakaway party, Option Nationale, that supports independence. Its leader, Jean-Martin Aussant, is a former PQ member of the National Assembly, and he has received money and support for his re-election under his new party banner from PQ stalwart, former premier Jacques Parizeau.
The fragmentation of the electorate coupled with the first-past-the-post electoral system sets up some interesting post-election scenarios. The most likely outcome is a divided National Assembly, followed by another election within perhaps 18 months. In the event the PQ and the QS have a majority between them, QS has indicated it will work with the PQ. Most observers expect the CAQ and the Liberals would co-operate should the occasion arise.
The PQ regularly invoke Stephen Harper and his policies of military spending and prison building as reasons to vote for a party ready to stand up to Ottawa. In the event of PQ government, the Conservatives will be on the spot to respond, but the NDP and the Liberals will also have to answer some pointed questions about Quebec, and the federation.
Whatever the result, the PQ itself will be severely tested. If it loses, a leadership battle ensues. If the PQ wins, Pauline Marois will have challenges in daily dealings with the caribous in her caucus, at the same time as building support for her policies among the wider population.
Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.