Why yesterday’s Quebec election matters

12.09.08

The election that wasn’t supposed to matter, everyone said. A snoozer. A mere footnote in the headlines. Most people in Quebec slept through it. But surprisingly, it may end up mattering more than people think. Here are a few reasons why:

  • A slim Liberal majority: Much slimmer than anyone, including Charest, was predicting. He’ll have to work hard to win his votes in the National Assembly. Any resignations, by-elections or MP absences could be costly.More importantly, the Liberals had been predicted to win seventy-something seats, not the sixty-six they ended up with. So this is a disappointment for Charest, who, even though he got his majority, has to contend with the fact that he dropped in support over the last few days of the campaign. Most of the people voting Liberal did it holding their noses, anyway; Charest’s not particularly loved, he’s just seen as the best-of-the-worst right now. Majority or not, Charest will have to tread very carefully.
  • Marois’s bait-and-switch: I’m referring to the S-word, of course. Sovereignty. A word that was scarcely mentioned by the PQ during the campaign, but was the main theme of Marois’s speech last night.Most of the people who voted PQ yesterday do not necessarily want Quebec to separate. I’d venture to say, most of them don’t want it. They voted PQ because they were disillusioned Adequistes, or because they don’t like Charest, or because they felt that the PQ should be in opposition again, or for a variety of reasons.But Marois is neatly implying that, with 51 seats won, she now has a mandate to work towards sovereignty. And it’s hard to argue with her rhetoric, because, after all, downplaying the S-word during a campaign isn’t the same as disavowing it. Marois’s argument is that the PQ has always had sovereignty as its raison d’être (true) and that people voting for them are doing so knowing that, so they’re justified in their claim that the PQ’s rise in fortune during this election implies a rise in support for sovereignty.Of course, Stephen Harper helped her here a lot, by voluntarily demonizing himself as Monsieur anti-Quebec last week. Harper’s rhetoric not only helped the PQ jump in the polls and capture more seats than predicted; it also gave the PQ an excuse to start beating the sovereigntist drums again.And what better time to do so than during an opposition period? Marois knows she has about three or four years, at least, to hammer sovereignty at every turn. And as long as Harper is in office federally, she’ll have lots of help. No wonder her speech last night sounded more like a victory speech than Charest’s did.
  • Back to the future: The 2007 election was hailed as a landmark, “breakthrough” election for Quebec. The ADQ won official opposition status, the PQ was seen as increasingly irrelevant, and we were finally going to get a “normal”, left-right political spectrum where we were talking about actual issues, you know, like education and healthcare and silly things like that. Single-issue voting along strictly federalist-separatist lines? Nah, we were past that. We were evolved.So much for that.The rightist ADQ, which was so fond of fence-sitting on the nationalist question while insisting that Quebecois were past it, has disintegrated in this election. Seems we’re not past it after all. Now, we’re back to a two-party, Liberal-PQ, federalist-sovereigntist divide. Never mind that most of those voting PQ were not voting for separation; it’s the spin that will matter now, and the spin doctors are hard at work convincing everyone that this is exactly what it means. And so, we regress into old patterns, and the issues can be damned.
  • Voter apathy: As predicted, the election had the worst turnout in Quebec’s history with only 57% of people in the province bothering to cast a vote. That would mean that there were more people who stayed home (43%) than people who voted for the winning party (42% of those who voted). Again, it’s not too surprising; people are fed up with elections, felt this one was superfluous and unnecessary; were distracted by the goings-on in Ottawa; were just too cold to go to the polling stations. Whatever. But it means that all the political leaders are going to have to do some serious thinking about how to get the public engaged in politics again. Conventional wisdom holds that lower voter turnouts are better for the Liberals, and higher turnouts favour the PQ, which doesn’t say much for Charest’s claim of a strong governing mandate. Apathy is always bad for democracy.
  • The rise of Québec Solidaire: Amir Khadir’s election in Mercier means that the far-left QS now has representation in the National Assembly. So we’ve gone from right-middle-left to left-lefter-leftest. Kind of like a university campus political spectrum, really. And so appropriate for Quebec. For those who think it’s just a blip, remember that the ADQ also started with only one MNA – Mario Dumont. Will the Québec Solidaire be the next third party to rise and fall? Stay tuned.
  • The federal implications: And this one’s the biggie. Quebec’s election will matter not only to Quebecers, but to all Canadians. With Ottawa in crisis, yesterday’s election may have a big impact on how things shake out over the next few weeks until Parliament resumes in January. The unity question is suddenly an issue again (thanks a whole lot, Stephen) and that’s going to influence how people view the Liberal leadership question, the coalition question, and the potential results of a possible federal election, should the government fall. It’s something that all the federal leaders are thinking about very carefully.

So, the election may end up mattering a great deal. Those of you who were among the 43% of eligible Quebec voters who stayed home yesterday might want to reflect on that.

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