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Elections: Québec Style

If there is one election campaign that usually resonates across Canada outside of a national election, it is the one held in the province of Québec (a federated state). This has been the case since the 1960s when the modern age of Québec politics and the growing impact of television converged. A strong thrust for major progressive reforms advocated by the Liberal government of the day, and the emergence of a strong nationalist fervor dominated the campaigns. The political effervescence of the day resulted in the creation of pro-Québec independence party with a social democratic agenda in 1968. It was named the Parti Québécois (PQ).

In the early 1970s the pro-independence and highly nationalist PQ became a growing force. By 1976, they formed a majority government and committed to have a referendum that would result in an independent Québec and the breaking up of Canada as we know it. Since then, the PQ has been in (1976-1985/1994-2003/2012-) and out of power but when in power, they tend to promote Québec’s political separation from a federal Canada. There have been two referenda in Quebec (1980,1995) and the pro-independence forces have lost both.

In September 2012, the PQ formed a minority government and has worked since then to win a majority by building up support. On March 5, Québec Premier Pauline Marois asked Québec’s Lieutenant Governor to dissolve the National Assembly for an election to be held on April 7. A majority would give the PQ the reins to push for Québec independence and possibly stronger advocacy of language legislation to protect the French language (Québec’s official and majority language).

It promises to be an interesting campaign with the real possibility that a majority government will result. In total there are four political parties represented in the 125 member National Assembly.  They include the PQ led by Premier Pauline Marois (54 seats), the Québec Liberal Party led by official opposition leader Philippe Couillard (49 seats), the Coalition pour l’Avenir du Québec (CAQ) led by François Legault (19 seats), Québec Solidarity with its two members–Françoise David and Amir Kadir, and one independent member (formerly of the Québec Liberals).

Why Québec elections become so important has much to do with the PQ goal of independence as the potential breakup of Canada leaves no room for indifference. While the current Premier, Pauline Marois, has yet to commit to a third referendum on the issue (1980, 1995), it is widely believed that a referendum may actually occur if she wins reelection with a majority government. With support for Quebec independence polling around 39 percent (according to a March 9 CROP poll), the pro-Canadian unity opposition Liberals are pushing the incumbent government to be clear on its intentions on what is certainly a potential wedge issue with the Québec electorate.

Outside the possibility of a potential Québec referendum, there are other issues that are expected to dominate the political debate–the stagnant economy where 26,000 jobs were lost in Québec in February alone, a growing debt and deficit where Québec is on a “watch” with the Fitch credit rating agency, increasing healthcare costs and access, and the adoption of a proposed and controversial Charter of Secular Values.

As the election cycle currently unwinds it is developing into a campaign about whether Quebec will face another referendum on independence. Yet, expect jobs and the economy to resurface as a key issue as the election debates take place mid-campaign. The Québec economy is underperforming despite an array of announcements by the incumbent PQ government. The economy and the job picture are seen as issues that could benefit the opposition Québec Liberals come Election Day.

The identity issues deal with the measures to reinforce and protect the French language. The PQ government has also made recent gains in the polls with their proposed Charter of Secular Values, which would prohibit any religious signs or attire worn by employees within the Québec public and parapublic service. The proposed Charter provisions could actually lead to dismissal of employees who fail to observe it, should it ever become law.

The promotion of Quebec independence also remains central to the PQ platform. Identity issues, however, clearly favor the pro-independence PQ party.

Prior to the election call, polls seem to favor the governing PQ, but the lead is now tightening and the electorate remains volatile. It is still too early to call as the most recent poll (the March 9 CROP) has the PQ and Liberals tied at 36 percent, and the CAQ at 17 percent with 52 percent indicating a willingness to change their vote by Election Day. Clearly, it may come down to a choice between a referendum on independence or one where “it’s the economy, stupid.” This campaign promises to be highly intense, as Québec elections can be.  Stay tuned.

*John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Canada, Elections, Quebec

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