An election call in the province of Québec is making federalists in Ottawa very jumpy. The most powerful pro-independence party in Québec, le Parti Québécois (PQ), is vowing to make a comeback. And that spells trouble for Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister. Voters go to the polls on September 4, 2012.
Although short on details, Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois has vowed to “achieve sovereignty after consulting the population in a referendum that will be held at a time it deems to be appropriate.” No timetable has been set.
That ambiguous statement is meant to shore up her support among pro-independence Quebeckers while at the same time, luring federalist voters fed up with a tired government.
After nine years in power, the reigning Liberal Premier of Québec Jean Charest is seeking a fourth mandate in the midst of a corruption scandal and social unrest that has rocked the province for months. Since the spring, Charest has been battling a student upheaval over university tuition hikes. At the height of the movement, which some observers liken to the May 1968 revolt in France, more than 250,000 people—many harboring the emblematic red square on their clothing—invaded the streets of Montréal.
At times violent, the movement took on a life of its own. Families joined with protesters to attack capitalism, social inequalities, corruption and the Charest government. Protests ballooned following the implementation of Bill 78. The emergency legislation suspended the winter university and college session and forced protesters to give police forces a precise itinerary and eight hours notice for demonstrations involving 50 people or more. Things could get nasty again as classes are set to resume in mid-August.
After making concessions and with no deal in sight, Charest had hinted he would go to the polls to let the people decide between two stark choices: democracy and law and order or “the choice of Madame Marois, referendums and the street.” A strong campaigner, he set the election date for September 4, about 10 days before televised public hearings on corruption are set to resume. The Québec premier is campaigning on his economic record, promising to create 250,000 jobs in the next four to five years, and to balance the books in next year’s budget. He’s banking on his ambitious Plan Nord, a 25-year plan to create thousands of jobs by developing the province’s resource-rich north.
With all these tensions bubbling, it’s impossible to call the election. Just last year, it was unimaginable that Québec voters would toss out the separatist Bloc Québécois on the federal scene and vote en masse for the left-leaning New Democratic Party led by the deceased Jack Layton.
Most observers feel there’s no appetite for Québec independence. This is not to say les Québécois embrace the federal structure with enthusiasm, says Professor Jean-Herman Guay from the Université de Sherbrooke in Québec. Support for the PQ has been declining in the last two elections but for some, especially among francophone voters, the “dream” of an independent Québec state still has some appeal.
A recent online poll by polling firm Léger Marketing for the QMI Agency puts the Parti québécois at 33 percent, the Liberals at 31 percent and newcomer, la Coalition Avenir Québec, at 21 percent. Two smaller pro-sovereignty parties along with the Green Party could eat into Pauline Marois’ support. Voters identified health and lower taxes as their top priorities. Separation only garnered 9 percent.
One candidate running for the PQ actually acknowledged it would be political suicide to push through a referendum on secession. Support for the PQ has been declining in the last two elections. Pauline Marois initially wore the red square in support of the protesters but has since adopted a more prudent approach. One of the former student leaders, Léo Burea-Blouin, is running as a PQ candidate.
Harper’s best bet is to cross his fingers that Charest will win a majority or minority government and thus avoid a political showdown with the Parti Québécois. Unpopular in Québec, he won’t interfere in the election campaign.
Quebeckers seem to be allergic to Harper’s brand of politics and Conservative ideology. After making a number of concessions, such as recognizing les Québécois as nation within a united Canada in his first mandate, resolving a long-standing fiscal imbalance problem between Ottawa and Québec and concluding a sales tax issue, he has made no inroads in Québec. Harper is stuck at five seats out of a possibility of 75 seats.
“None of those measures have been productive,” remarks Guay. “It did not increase his number of seats or his percentage of votes. Mr. Harper has difficulty seducing the Québec electorate.”
While trying to keep a low-profile in the campaign, Harper has his ear to the ground. It was reported by the Canadian Press that he held a secret meeting in June in Montréal with former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to discuss the possibility of a Parti Québécois win and to seek his advice on how to build bridges with the predominantly francophone province of Québec.
As is always the case in Québec politics, the campaign promises to be anything but dull.
The campaign is shaping up to be a three-way race between the Liberal Party of Québec, the Parti Québécois and la Coalition Avenir Québec headed by former PQ minister François Legault. Legault is running on an economic platform, focusing on integrity in government and promising to put the issue of independence on hold for 10 years.
He kicked off his campaign by saying that corruption was the Québec Liberal Party’s “trademark.” Legault has recruited anti-corruption crusader Jacques Duchesneau, the former Montréal police chief and former head of the Québec Anti-collusion Unit. Duchesneau has testified that political parties in Québec are being largely funded by “dirty money” offered by companies who expect and get government contracts and political favors in return.
Under pressure, Charest reluctantly set up a commission of inquiry last November to look into allegations of a widespread corruption and collusion scheme related to the awarding of public contracts to construction firms. He has defended his record to clean up corruption in government.
Although not immediately on the radar, the possibility of a third Québec referendum on secession would create “a lot more fear” this time, says pollster Nik Nanos from Nanos Research in view of the risky economic climate. Les Québécois voted against separation in 1980 and 1995. But the razor thin NO results in 1995 rattled then-Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien who thought he had lost the country.
In the last 10 days of the 1995 referendum campaign, Chrétien increased his presence in Québec and turned to a much more nationalistic and popular figure to sell Canada to les Québécois, Jean Charest.
Huguette Young is an AQ Online contributing blogger based in Ottawa, Canada.