Last Monday, the centre-right and federalist Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) won a clear majority victory and the centre-left sovereignist Parti Québécois (PQ) suffered a historical defeat. Philippe Couillard will be the new premier of Quebec.
The PQ held a minority government and had called the election in a bid to turn it into a majority, but in light of the results the head of the party Pauline Marois, who failed to win her own seat, resigned.
The PLQ won 42% of the popular vote, compared with 25% for the PQ, its lowest level since 1970. The centre-right nationalist Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) won 23% of the votes, and the leftist and sovereignist Québec Solidaire 8%.
Quebec has a first-past-the-post electoral system, according to which the single winner in each of the ridings is the person with the most votes. The PLQ obtained 70 of the 125 seats (+20), the PQ 30 (-22), the CAQ 22 (+3) and Québec Solidaire 3 (+1).
The Parti Québécois went to the campaign with a polling lead, and the party’s strategy was to focus on the creation of jobs and on the Charter of Values.
The Charter is a much debated proposal whose most controversial aspect consists in the banning of ostentatious religious symbols for public sector employees. Based on the French model of laïcité, the Charter had proved most popular in rural areas, but faced opposition from religious minorities and a large number of Quebecers, and was defined as discriminatory by political opponents.
The announcement that Pierre-Karl Péladeau, the famous owner of media giant Québecor, would run as the Parti Québécois candidate in the riding of Saint-Jérôme was expected to strengthen the economic credibility of the party, an area of weakness.
But the « Péladeau effect » seems to have done more harm than good. Although he won his seat, his right-wing profile alienated progressives in the sovereignist movement, and his claim that he campaigned ‘to make Quebec a country’ paved the way for the Liberal’s argument that a vote for the Parti Québécois was a vote for yet another referendum, a topic the party was keen to avoid.
Marois avoided the referendum question, saying that she would not call it if Quebecers were not ready for one. This vague answer led Couillard to argue that she had a hidden referendum agenda. In fact, the official proposal of the PQ was to publish a white paper and launch a public consultation on the future of Quebec. The Liberal Party was able to capitalise on the fears of voters that a vote for the PQ was a vote for another referendum
The sovereignists counter-attacked arguing that Couillard’s persistent defence of bilingualism makes him a weak defender of the French language. In this sense, his claim that a factory floor worker should speak some English was a political mistake. The Charbonneau Commission is also revealing unpleasant facts about corruption in Quebec and the role that the PLQ had in those dealings. These accusations made for a rather bitter election campaign.
Further, the PQ insisted that that a vote for the Liberals was ‘a vote for the past’, in reference to the discredited former premier Jean Charest. The 2012 Quebec election was called because people lost confidence in Charest’s handling of the student protests over tuition fees.
Concluding Remarks and Future Prospects
There have been many ironies in this election campaign. The Parti Québécois has been trying to distance itself from sovereignty, which should at first glance be the party’s most central commitment. The Liberals’ campaign has pivoted around fear of a referendum that had not been put on the table. Although the fragile economic situation of the province is the main concern of Quebecers, the central issue has been instead a referendum that as many as 2/3 of Quebecers did not even want to hear about.
In this sense, the huge jump of the CAQ in the polls during the last week of the campaign may be saying something about the importance of the economy and the relative non-importance of the sovereignty question at the present time. After all, the CAQ is a centre-right party focused on good governance and cutting down public finances that has officially said that they would put the issue of the referendum on the back burner for at least 10 years.
Phillippe Couillard promises stability and integrity. He argues that his new government will prioritise the economy and will move away from ‘divisive issues’ such as the referendum and the Charter. He proposes to freeze spending, hold taxes steady, and ‘bring in a new culture of cost awareness’.
Sovereignists in the Parti Québécois are expected to go through a period of soul searching.