As a Montreal native, and a self-confessed political junkie, I knew my eyes would be glued to the television screen for the Quebec election results broadcast. Having grown up in Quebec, and literally gyrating as a university student on that eerie night in 1995, Quebec elections resonate closely for me.
The true significance in this election rests in the fact that while the people of Quebec gave the Parti Quebecois (PQ) a tepid minority government, they did not offer a mandate for sovereignty. Pollsters under-reported support for the federalist Quebec Liberals, and the national unity discussion was not a top priority during the campaign. The weak mandate for the PQ this time stands in stark contrast to the sweeping directives they received the last two times they were sworn in. These developments are not insignificant, and I shall now discuss them each in turn.
First, pollsters were off the mark yet again. This most recent Quebec election demonstrates that both the media and political observers alike are too reliant on often imprecise pollsters. According to the website Threehundredeight.com as of Monday, September 3rd, (www.threehundredeight.com) the PQ were likely to win a bare majority government with the Quebec Liberal Party well behind. The final poll had the PQ at 34.1% support, the Quebec Liberal Party at 27.9%, and the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) at 26.3%.
The result on election night was somewhat different. The PQ managed to capture 32% of the vote, with the Quebec Liberals at 31%, and the CAQ behind at 27%. So while CAQ support was predicted accurately, PQ support was inflated while Liberal support was underestimated. The question becomes, why were the polls off the mark yet again?
Much of the reason is plainly obvious; voters are becoming increasingly volatile and often tell pollsters they will vote for a party they end up not supporting in the voting booth. In the Quebec election, many told pollsters that they intended to vote PQ, when in the end, they voted for the Liberals. So, can the experts better anticipate these shifts that seem increasingly to be throwing their predictions into disarray? The answer is both yes and no. No, it is impossible for any researcher to predict with certainty how any person will behave in a voting booth. But pollsters are going to have to develop the expertise to better determine when support for a party is soft, how likely a voter is to change his or her mind before election day, and anticipate these trends so that they can develop more reliable projections in advance of an election.
Pollsters underreported support, presumably mainly among Francophones, for a federalist party. Even after nine years of a government tainted by scandal and perceived as out of touch, the Quebec Liberals remain a viable, durable federalist option. This is obviously bad news for the PQ.
Second, Quebec elections are increasingly being fought on a left-right divide in terms of the role for the government in the economy and society, and less on the national unity question. Though national unity clearly has not receded, it no longer dominates the discussion. Kelly McParland accurately insists that “on a list of concerns, another referendum came way down from the top. The economy, jobs, education and social programs; Quebecers, like other Canadians, are worried about the basics.” (“Cancel the nervous breakdown” Full Comment, National Post, September 4, 2012)
The emergence of the CAQ as a viable political party in Quebec speaks saliently to this point. Though Legault’s obfuscation on an issue as pertinent as national unity is glib, that he emphasized issues such as corruption, the economy and healthcare speaks to national unity diminishing from importance. Once an ardent sovereignist himself, and a minister in the PQ, that Legault even hinted at voting no were a referendum held now is noteworthy. It reiterates declining support for the national unity debate, one that’s dominated the Quebec political landscape for the last forty years.
Third, prospects for Quebec sovereignty are dashed by the fact that after nine years of a tired Quebec Liberal government, the PQ could only muster a minority government. This is striking, especially when the winds for change were blowing strong. This is distinguishable from the last two times the PQ came to power. In 1976, Rene Levesque won a clear majority government, and with it, literally swept many Anglophone Quebecers onto the 401 and into Toronto, where they still live. A referendum followed in 1980, and though the “no” vote was decisive, national unity was a very genuine concern.
In 1994, after nine years of Liberal rule and the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, the PQ obtained a majority government under the leadership of arch-sovereignist Jacques Parizeau. In 1995, just one year later, the breakup of the country was averted in the referendum, but barely. When Lucien Bouchard became leader and then won the subsequent election with a majority in 1998, the results were disappointing to federalists, but already, the prominence of the national unity was retreating.
Fast forward to 2012, and the PQ mandate is tepid at best, unlike the past two times the PQ came to power after prolonged PLQ rule. The popular support for the PQ at 32 % this time has actually dropped from the 35% it received in the 2008 election. (www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quebec_general_election_2008#) This level of support is disappointing for the PQ, especially given a tired nine year Liberal government tainted by allegations of scandal.
That the PQ received at best a lukewarm reception when Quebecers were yearning for change points to resistance in support for a party whose raison d’etre is the divisive, draining cause of sovereignty. In this context, McParland once again accurately remarks “voters did the smart thing and gave the PQ a small, weak government, one that will have to earn future allegiance by applying itself to the practical problems at which the Liberals failed.” (“Cancel the nervous breakdown”, Full Comment, National Post, September 4, 2012) Sovereignty is not one of the practical concerns now dominating Quebec politics.
Even with what appears to be a softening in support for sovereignty, the next chapter in Quebec politics is unlikely to be placid. Just after soothing Anglophone Quebecers that their rights will be protected, Marois then bluntly told the rest of Canada that Quebec has national aspirations and seeks to become its own country in the future. At this moment, my magnanimity to Marois for her olive branch to Anglophone Quebecers just moments earlier evaporated in a nanosecond.
Yet in contrast to her PQ predecessors, Marois’ expressions of support for sovereignty are not threatening, but rather redundant, irritating and a product of a by-gone era. Even with the PQ win, I am confident I will sleep very well after a long, tumultuous night.
Jeremy Richler has completed an MA in Political Science and an LL.B. He is a member in good standing with the Law Society of Upper Canada.