Could this be the PQ's last hurrah?

| September 10, 2012
Pauline Marois and Léo Bureau-Blouin. (Photo: Marie Berne / flickr)

Pauline Marois has cemented her place in history by becoming Quebec's first-ever female Premier. But there's also a good chance that she'll be remembered as the last Parti Québécois (PQ) leader to govern the province. In fact, it's entirely plausible that both the PQ and Liberals (PLQ) could disappear from Quebec's electoral landscape within a few decades.

The eventual disappearance of the PQ or PLQ within our lifetimes would have seemed crazy not too long ago. After all, Quebec has been governed by one of the two parties since 1970. In almost every election from 1973 to 2003, the parties' combined share of the popular vote was 85 per cent or greater. The only exception was in 1976, where the two parties still combined for more than 75 per cent of the popular vote. But in this month's election, the PQ and PLQ received a combined share of less than two-thirds of the popular vote.

This decline in combined support for the two parties suggests it's possible that their dominance of Quebec politics is coming to an end. This outcome is more than likely given the unique set of problems facing each party and the evolving nature of political debate in Quebec.

The PQ is first and foremost a coalition of conservatives and progressives whose top priority is achieving Quebec's independence. This coalition becomes increasingly difficult to keep together the more it seems unlikely that independence is achievable in the near future.

The cracks in this coalition are already apparent, as the PQ is losing support in three different directions. The party is losing support on its left flank to Québec Solidaire, while simultaneously losing support on its right to the Coalition Avenir Québec. Meanwhile, Option Nationale is challenging the PQ for support amongst voters who are firmly committed to achieving independence as soon as possible.

The results of Tuesday's election make it even more challenging for the PQ to hold their coalition together.

Québec Solidaire succeeded in electing both of its co-spokespeople, Françoise David and Amir Khadir, to the National Assembly. This will result in increased visibility, and afford David and Khadir more time to use their different-yet-complementary leadership styles to build popular support for the party.

The PQ's inability to win a majority will have two important consequences vis-à-vis their ability to prevent further fragmenting of their coalition. First of all, this means that the next election will occur sooner rather than later. This makes it more likely that Option Nationale will stick around, despite its lack of representation in the National Assembly. Secondly, the PQ will be impeded in any bid to use its role as government to manufacture support for sovereignty, its best strategy for keeping its coalition intact.

Also, considering it took the PQ three elections before it could oust the unpopular Charest government, and was held to a minority when it finally did, the impression that the party is a spent force seems increasingly plausible. However, it's important not to equate the demise of the PQ with the end of the sovereignty movement. Rather, it means Quebec's independence will have to be achieved through a different vehicle, if it's ever going to be achieved.

The PLQ, on the other hand, is faced with its own unique threats to its continued survival. The party managed to win 31 per cent of the popular vote in the election, which exceeded expectations, but is still a historical low for the party. Meanwhile, the loss of Jean Charest as leader could prove to be a mixed blessing, for while he is hugely unpopular, there's no obvious replacement waiting in the wings who seems poised to boost the party's fortunes.

So the PLQ is already in a historically weak state, and things will only get worse from here.

The Charbonneau Commission charged with investigating the granting and management of public contracts in the construction industry is set to begin the bulk of its public hearings on September 17. It's widely expected that the inquiry will expose links between political donations, government contracts and organized crime.

The Charbonneau Commission risks being to the Quebec Liberals what the Gomery Commission was to the Liberal Party of Canada, if not worse. It could represent a fatal blow to their already tarnished reputation.

The unique challenges facing the PQ and PLQ will also have to be dealt with in the context of an evolving political landscape. There is an emerging consensus among political commentators that the federalist-sovereignist debate is losing its dominant place in Quebec's political discourse, with a more traditional left-right debate emerging in its place.

Evidence of this changing dynamic includes a CROP poll released at the end of August, which found that less than 30 per cent of respondents would vote in favour of Quebec sovereignty. Also, consider the ADQ's elevation to Official Opposition in the 2007 election, or the CAQ's ability to earn more than a quarter of the popular vote in its first-ever election. Of course there's also the famous Orange Wave of the 2011 federal election.

All of this is evidence of an appetite for change in the Quebec electorate. Exactly what kind of change isn't clear, considering it has benefited the right-leaning CAQ provincially but also the left-leaning NDP on the federal level. However, there's no question that a key part of this change is a shift away from the debate that has characterized Quebec politics for decades.

An eventual return of the NDP to Quebec politics will further accentuate this increased prominence of left-vs-right issues. Some are pessimistic about the NDP's ability to be a contender provincially, thinking it won't manage much more than chipping away federalist support from Québec Solidaire. But the party's growth potential is in fact much greater.

Since Tom Mulcair's election as leader, the NDP has been consistently polling at around 40 per cent in surveys of federal voting intentions in Quebec. This means the NDP would enter the provincial scene with an established and popular brand. Furthermore, it has an ability to steal support from all of the existing Quebec political parties. It could easily replace the PLQ as the default option for committed federalists who are turned off by the CAQ's lukewarm commitment to Canada. It could pick up support from voters who currently vote PQ because it's the most progressive party with a chance of forming government. The CAQ meanwhile, would have to contend with a new party capable of garnering support from voters looking for change.

Therefore, given the unique challenges facing the PQ and the PLQ, and the evolution towards a more traditional left-vs-right political discourse, it's entirely plausible that both parties could become irrelevant within the course of a few electoral cycles.

Don't be surprised if the CAQ and NDP become the two dominant players of Quebec politics by the end of this decade.

 

Trevor Hanna is a former Vice-President (Federal and International Affairs) of the Quebec Federation of University Students (FEUQ) and an avid political observer. He has degrees in Physics and Journalism from McGill and Concordia respectively, and is currently studying law at the Université de Montréal.

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