Unlike in other Canadian provinces, a Québec election can have repercussions on the functioning and future of the Canadian federation. Since 1970, the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ) has been a significant force in Québec politics. It has formed governments on two occasions: 1976-1985 and 1994-2003.
Last week, on September 4, PQ won a minority government with 54 seats, compared to 50 seats for the outgoing Parti Libéral du Québec (Québec Liberal Party—PLQ). It was a close election with only 31.9 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots for the PQ, the lowest total for a government in Québec history. Nonetheless, Pauline Marois became the first woman elected as premier in the history of the province. A dedicated sovereignist, determined and perseverant, she should not be underestimated as she takes over the reins of power in a minority government.
Departing Premier Jean Charest leaves office after winning three consecutive mandates. Following the election results, Charest decided to end a 28-year career in both federal politics (i.e., Ottawa) and provincial politics (i.e., Québec). His career stands out as possibly the most unique in Canadian history: he left a promising federal career, having served for a short period as deputy prime minister of Canada, to run for provincial politics and became premier in 2003.
It is too early to draw sweeping conclusions about the Charest era. Suffice it to say that he promoted Québec’s role in the Canadian federation and that he departs office with support for Québec separatism at its lowest level, despite the PQ win.
In his tenure, he made the economy his number-one priority and left office with his signature project, Plan Nord (North Plan), in place. Plan Nord is the largest, most integrated sustainable development project in Canada; it promotes natural resource extraction and investment in the resource-rich areas north of the 49th parallel. Finally, Charest promoted Québec interests and goals beyond the Canadian federation into the international arena more than any of his predecessors.
The arrival of Pauline Marois as Premier has clearly brought Canadian concerns about Québec secession to the forefront. However, for the first time in its history, the PQ did not actually promise to hold a referendum on the question this time around. Instead, Marois intends to introduce citizen-initiated referendum legislation, similar to some U.S. states. The proposal has already drawn mixed reactions from both proponents and opponents of sovereignty.
A third party called the Coalition Avenir Québec (Coalition for Québec’s Future— CAQ) won 19 seats and holds the balance of power in Québec’s National Assembly. Its leader, François Legault, put together a mix of sovereignists and federalists in less than one year, and promised to oppose a referendum on Québec independence for 10 years. He also committed to vote against separation if the PQ were to propose it in this coming term. Having earned 27 percent of the popular vote, he will not be a marginal factor.
With last week’s election result, it is fair to assume that Québec politics is in for some transitions. The PQ has not garnered more than 35 percent of popular vote in the last four elections—with its option way below the 49.5 percent garnered in the 1995 referendum on Québec sovereignty. The Liberals are in search of a new leader, now that Charest is stepping down, and will need some important policy renewal after nine years in power. What’s more, the CAQ for a first run now has a respectable presence in the new Parliament.
Important transitions therefore await us, and this promises to be interesting times for politics in Québec, and in Canada as a whole.
John Parisella is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently an invited professor at University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. His Twitter account is @JohnParisella.