The curtain has risen on the last week of the Quebec election, and the audience is uneasy, but paying close attention. The decades-old struggle between Quebec sovereignists and Canadian federalists for political dominance is once again centre stage.

Depending on the victor, the election could well recreate conditions for another pan-Canadian debate about Quebec.

Nobody can predict the outcome of the April 7 vote; but the trajectory of the campaign changed abruptly last week, because polling numbers had shown the Liberal Party ahead and the PQ government about to lose power.

Borrowing directly from the Harper Conservatives’ guide to politics, the Parti Québécois launched an all-out attack on Liberal leader Philippe Couillard. In the second of two televised debates, supplemented by negative TV ads, the PQ questioned his integrity, his past performance in office as Health Minister, and his commitment to the French language and culture.

In the televised debate last Thursday, by belabouring a point about bilingualism and not stressing the importance of defending the French language and culture, Couillard made himself vulnerable to counterattacks immediately launched by each of the other parties.

Outdoing expectations, the Liberal leader had taken over the initial stages of the campaign, mounting a sustained attack on the PQ. He had been most effective calling on Marois and her party to declare their true intentions about the future.

Reminding voters sovereignty was Article One of the PQ party constitution, Couillard accused Pauline Marois of deceiving Quebecers by withholding plans to hold a referendum on sovereignty. Electing the PQ, the Liberal leader claimed, would throw Quebec into an economically disastrous, divisive referendum campaign nobody wanted other than Marois and her close associates. 

The election the PQ government called and thought could focus on Quebec national values, was suddenly slipping away. While taken by surprise, the PQ had no intention of seeing the hated Liberals back in office, not even two years after being defeated.

The Liberals had capitalized when PQ star candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau made his first statement a ringing call for Quebec to become a country. In the face of Liberal attacks, Premier Marois, who has never tried to hide her sovereignist beliefs, and indeed regularly affirmed her support for Quebec independence, decided to downplay the national question.

On the hustings, the PQ was running into an important obstacle: while about 40 per cent of Quebecers favoured sovereignty, only 30 per cent were willing to support a third referendum.

Marois declared talk of a referendum was just fear mongering by the Liberal leader, claiming the PQ would not hold a referendum until the population was ready for one. Strong sovereignists could be excused for asking: if talk of a referendum was unjustified fear mongering, what did promoting Quebec sovereignty constitute? Justified fear mongering?

While its main energy went into attacking the messenger, the PQ has also been trying to change the subject from: “do you want a referendum?” to “do you want to live under another corrupt Liberal government?”

The PQ want voters to compare its record for honesty and integrity in government with the Liberal legacy revealed to the province in the televised Charbonneau commission of inquiry (temporarily suspended for the election) into collusion and corruption in the province’s construction industry.

To kick off the last week of the campaign, the PQ has gone back to its initial strategy: cultivate the francophone vote by an appeal to Quebec identity. Marois’ campaign is saying Quebec needs to set limits on minority religious rights in order to affirm its identity, and a vote for the PQ is a vote for a Charter protecting Quebec values.

To win re-election the PQ needs support from two groups: voters who favour sovereignty; and those who identify as strong nationalists but oppose a third referendum.

Marois wants francophone voters to believe that only the PQ can be trusted to stand up for Quebec. Support for the third party Coalition pour l’Avenir du Québec (CAQ) remains a threat to both the PQ and the Liberals among francophone voters.

Appealing to strong nationalists and to right-wing voters, the CAQ leader François Legault offers an alternative to those who resist polarization between sovereignists and federalists. By drawing enough votes from the Liberals, Legault could re-elect the PQ. Should his party’s fortunes rise, making the PQ lose ground in French Quebec, Legault could help the Liberals.

Québec Solidaire (QS) worries PQ strategists. A genuinely progressive party which wants to see a constituent assembly draw up a constitution for Quebec, QS gives voters unhappy with the rightward drift of the PQ a way to express their dissatisfaction and affirm their commitment to left politics.

In the political theatre, the audience decides the outcome. Another PQ minority government? A Liberal triumph? A PQ majority?

A PQ victory Monday will create a new dynamic in Quebec politics, and spillover into federal politics. Those who thought the Quebec question had been settled will have to think again, and adjust accordingly.

After receiving a rough ride from its opponents, a new Liberal government will need to focus on civics, public engagement and showing respect for its adversaries.

QS can expect its ideas to be picked over by the PQ, while the CAQ will have to decide if it has a future at all.

Among party leaders, only the winner of a majority government will get a curtain call.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Takashi Toyooka/flickr