Press-Republican

August 24, 2012

Stakes are high in upcoming Quebec election

By PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch
Press-Republican

---- — Next time you read this column, Quebec voters will have elected a new government, and, quite possibly, launched the province — and the rest of Canada — on an adventure into uncertainty.

Polls and conventional wisdom suggest the vote on Sept. 4 could produce several results, ranging from a secessionist Parti Quebecois government to the re-election of Premier Jean Charest’s Liberals to the election of a brand-new right-leaning party.

This week featured a series of four debates between the main party leaders: Charest, the Parti Quebecois’s Pauline Marois and Francois Legault, a former Parti Quebecois minister and founder of the Coalition Avenir Quebec (see my Nov. 18, 2011, column for more background on Legault).

How voters rate the performance of leaders in those showdowns could set the tone for the remaining 10 days of the campaign. Going into the debates the Parti Quebecois had a modest lead on the Liberals with the Coalition gaining ground, mostly at the expense of the governing party.

But a poll published mid-week shows Charest may have earned a bit of a bounce. So it could be that the famously resilient and experienced Charest is running out of political lives, and one gets from his increasing intensity in the latter half of the campaign he plans to go out swinging.

The threat of a Parti Quebecois government has stirred more than the usual interest in a Quebec election in the rest of the country. Canadians had become quite accustomed, indeed seem to have taken for granted, having Charest, a passionate federalist, in charge of the historically restless province.

But Charest, still the youngest of his rival leaders at 54, has been premier for nine years. His party has been buffeted by allegations of corruption in Quebec’s construction industry and has set up a public inquiry to examine them. Since March, he and his government have also had to contend with an often violent student uprising, provoked by an increase in university tuition fees.

What could contribute to his demise but at the same time reassure Canadians concerned about the spectre of Quebec separatism is the growing popularity of Legault’s Coalition Avenir Quebec. Should Quebecers not keen on a referendum on secession as promised by Marois and the Parti Quebecois but also not pleased with Charest, decide to shift en masse to the Coalition Avenir Quebec, a big change may be in store.

Recent voting history shows just what kind of tectonic shifts the Quebec electorate is capable of. Just last year, the province stirred what’s called the Orange Tide, in electing dozens of members of federal Parliament from the socialist New Democratic Party.

In March 2007, in reducing Charest’s Liberals to a minority, Quebecers elected just seven fewer members of the right-wing Action Democratique party. The remaining members of that party have now merged with Legault’s coalition and hoping this time around to be part of a new government.

Legault has made two key vows that may appeal to traditional federalist voters, but also to small “c” conservatives: put the sovereignty debate on ice indefinitely, and get Quebec’s financial house in order — the province has a debt larger than the federal government.

As for the Parti Quebecois’s Marois, after suffering her own troubles this year with rebellions in her party, the veteran politician lately has been enjoying a ride atop the polls. Having first run for the leadership position in 1985, she seems as close as anyone’s ever been to becoming Quebec’s first woman premier — and, if she is able to make things go her way, the first president of the independent country of Quebec.

Some commentators have been expressing the concern that should the Parti Quebecois come to power and spark a drive to secede from Canada, the federal government is particularly ill-equipped to wage a battle to keep Quebec in the country. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservatives have but a few seats in the province and no obvious Quebec champion.

And, in an ironic twist, should there be a referendum campaign, the leader of the No side could end up being possible official opposition leader Francois Legault, still a secessionist in his heart, if not in his party’s platform.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at pmblack@videotron.ca.