A guest article for An Sionnach Fionn by Jean François Joubert on the National Assembly election campaign in Québec:
Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti Québécois (the PQ), has had a rough week. In fact the party’s apparatchiks couldn’t be blamed for wanting to hide her until election day, September 4th. This is quite a paradox as Marois’ PQ is poised to become the next majority government in Québec and Marois Québec’s first female prime minister. Still the PQ is far from rejoicing. The problem the party has is one of “division du vote”. Twenty years ago the PQ was the sole democratic vehicle for independence, now the situation has become a bit more complex. The very high margin of error in the polls means almost anything could happen. However change is also about new opportunities and the situation may be more promising for significant change than it has been in any period since 1995.
FIRST, THE PLAYERS
Jean Charest’s Québec Liberal Party. The winner of the NO campaign in 1995, “Capitaine Canada” has been running Québec for the last nine years. When corruption scandals multiplied around him he had the good sense to call for the election during a recess of the public inquiry into the construction industry (and its ties with his party’s financing). His government is also responsible for Bill 78, the internationally criticized anti-demonstration law against student protests (le printemps érable). The Anglophone vote, the party’s traditional liberal base, is fractioning. He is largely seen as writing the last pages of his political book. However, there is a numeric possibility, not small, that he could win a sizeable minority or even a majority vote. The Érable Spring might turn into a year-long protest should that happen.
The Parti Québécois is leading the polls right now but Pauline Marois is criticized for her role in the student protests as a too late, half-hearted, politically motivated effort compounded by her position that once elected she will cancel the “Liberal“ hikes in tuition fees and begin an enquiry into the whole matter. She is also criticized for her referendum strategy which is: not until it’s the right time (well OK, if there is a petition signed by 15% of the population but the government has the last word and not likely in a first mandate anyway).
Another part of the PQ strategy is the belief that it is now time for the Parti Québécois to be back in power and that it is important not to divide the vote between sovereigntists (Québec nationalists). Additionally the PQ is positioning itself again as the defender of the French language and all things Québécois such as gender equality and the secular state.
THE NEW PLAYERS
The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) led by a prominent former PQ minister, is a centre-right party that promises to clean up government and make it more efficient and, above all, not to initiate any referendums (the CAQ appears to be siphoning voters left and right equally: PQ and Liberal). Ironically, as was pointed out during the campaign, CAQ’s leader Legault would traditionally head the NO campaign should he be elected in the opposition and a referendum be proposed. He has said he would not take sides in any future referendum, whether on the yes or the no side. This promises to be interesting.
Targeting some of the PQ’s voters on the far left spectrum (as well as other parties like the Greens, the recently defunct but always marginal Communist Party and groups like la Marche des femmes contre la pauvreté) is the Québec Solidaire co-leader Amir Khadir, at one time the most popular politician in Québec. Québec Solidaire or QS has been influential in a great turnaround in Québec politics with a flurry of ideas, innovations and bold actions. Though putting left politics before independence QS emphatically denies it is anything but a party championing Québec independence. Its strategy to achieve this success is perhaps not matching its own strong convictions; it promises to hold public “constitutional assemblies” for two years and then have a referendum on the propositions therein. For an electorate already weary of referendums and debates on the issue of independence, their solution appears to be the worst of both worlds for some.
Finally Option national (ON) like QS plays on the left side of the field: they are in favour of nationalisation of resources, free education from kindergarten to university a unified government-administered Pharma-Québec for all prescription drugs. However, as ON leader Jean-Marin Aussant says, whether you are a liberal or conservative you have to “be” first. For independence the strategy is clear: ON proposes to have the National Assembly group all the powers it now shares with Canada (a sort of DEVO-MAX on steroids, voted right there in the Assembly) and then they will have a wide consultation on a constitution. It is that constitution that would be voted for by all citizens in a referendum. A win/win situation.
(Full disclosure: I support Option nationale)
This week though the media has been monopolized by the gaffes of the Parti Québécois.
PQ leader Pauline Marois proposed last week that linguistic tests would be given to all potential election candidates (whether francophone, anglophone or aboriginal) and that they would be banned from running if they didn’t speak French at an adequate level.
She then backed down somewhat saying it only applied to newcomers as people already here would have their rights maintained. Other members of the party reassured the population saying “it was not going to be done right away”. This somehow does not reassure me at all. This from a party that officially has promoted self-determination for aboriginal nations since 1977.
In an election where every point counts, consolidating your base is essential. Appearing so late in the game in this manner is proving to be just plain embarrassing. I will not argue against knowledge of French for public servants and even democratic representatives everywhere in Québec aside from aboriginal communities (a moot point since virtually everyone who is educated in Québec speaks French) but this plan appears ill-conceived, ill-explained and half-baked.
QS and Option nationale has stated in a straight-forward response that independence for Québec means that obviously they also support aboriginal nations’ rights for self-determination and promotion of their own languages. As for the PQ, on this issue it appears that this party has literally stood still for the past twenty years and has some evolving to do.
Other parts of the citizenship program would promote gender equality and a secular state by banning public sector workers from wearing headscarves and other religious symbols (a small cross was acceptable!). Though prepared somewhat for a debate (many of the ideas are in tune with the Algerian-raised PQ candidate Djemila Benhabib, an intellectual opposed to Muslim fundamentalism and a staunch defender of women’s rights) a constructive discussion could have ensued but was quickly avoided when other gaffes came to the fore such as should the cross which has been at the National Assembly be removed. YES! Says Benhabib. NO! Says Marois.
Again, an opportunity lost for intelligent discourse. One positive thing though, it appears the PQ has lost its fear of political characterization and is not afraid to stir up the largely hostile Anglophone press. Sadly, it has simply done very badly in the explaining, justifying and compassion department that could justify some of this stirring up of opinion.
During a debate, Legault reminded Marois all it took was 15 per cent of the population signing a petition to hold a referendum on sovereignty (actually this is quite a high number of people and it would be historic) and argues the hardliners would be in a position to decide the date of the referendum and force all of Québec like so many Caribou down a ravine. “Can you stop a referendum yes or no?” asked Legault. A stunned Marois replied not only petitions but even referendums were only consultations, they were not law. Many people would not agree in dismissing referendums as a strategy.
The next day her close collaborators had to remind her publically: it would be quite difficult to disregard a petition signed by 85000 people: the pressure would be enormous.
THE POSSIBLE OUTCOMES
With one week to go to September 4th, here are some of the scenarios: all bets are on.
My predictions are:
- Option nationale wins all its ridings and a referendum on a constitution is voted on before Christmas. OK, that is a long shot. Good for 2014.
- Liberals win a minority government, CAQ win minority government: unsustainable and would quickly be voted out by opposition parties.
- Quebec solidaire, minority-majority. Unlikely but possible. Québec is embroiled in free trade negotiations with Cuba and Venezuela (yes, it is part of their program) and people wonder what exactly will their priorities be from their very large party platform.
- PQ, a majority. I do not favour this outcome; though it is hard in our winner-take-all system to work against that. The PQ is not willing to initiate independence nor is it willing to argue for it. However pressure would mount on the AMs [Assembly Members] and perhaps like the dozens that have already left the PQ and Liberals for new parties the trend would continue.
- PQ minority with two QS seats and one Option nationale. Most likely outcome right now in a divided but surprisingly stable electorate. Bingo. I do believe that would be a winning combination. Warts and all. PQ pressured by ON and QS to govern from the left and get on with obtaining all powers to the assembly.
Exciting times ahead no doubt!
Finally, the latest poll is here. The results are:
… Jean François Joubert