Elections in Québec: Where Do We Stand After September 4?

On September 4, the people of Québec elected a new National Assembly. They demonstrated a surprising level of interest in the 35-day campaign, full of twists and turns, despite it being held in the summertime. This blog post will draw a quick picture of the current state of Québec politics and point towards what’s in store in terms of legislative agenda with Pauline Marois’s new PQ government.

The New National Assembly

For the 40th time since Canada’s Constitution was adopted in 1867, Québec was called upon to elect its own government. The new legislature is greatly divided, the three main parties having gathered each close to a third of votes. Indeed, the Parti québécois (PQ), which forms the government, won 32% of the popular vote, only one percentage point ahead of the Liberals (31%) and five points ahead of the new Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ, 27%). The first-past-the-post voting system has given distorted results by awarding these parties respectively 54, 50, and 19 seats. Québec solidaire (QS), a small left-wing, ecological, feminist, and independentist party garnered 6% support and got its two main spokespeople elected as MNAs.

The CAQ, a new right-wing party which wishes to set aside the debate over Québec’s political and constitutional future, is left with not so many MNAs considering its voters support. Nonetheless, it will play a leading role in the next mandate since it holds the balance of power. Its leader, François Legault, had said during the campaign that if his party wasn’t elected, he would bring down the government as soon as an opportunity came up. On the day following the election, he rather announced that he would collaborate with the PQ government.

The Liberal Party, having just lost its leader Jean Charest, finds itself in a weird position. It will need time and stability to proceed with the upcoming leadership race and may thus choose to accommodate the new government more in the coming year. However, once the leadership problem is solved and the new leader has gone through a short probation, the Liberals will return to being a political force to be reckoned with. In addition to being the Official Opposition, it remains the wealthiest provincial political party in Québec and the one with the best organization. Indeed, thanks to its money and its structure, the powerful liberal machine once again made liars of pollsters on Tuesday night: its über-organized get-out-the-vote operations grabbed 6 percentage points more than voting intentions.

Madame Marois’s legislative agenda will thus depend upon the vagaries of other political parties’ situations because she will have no other choice but to negotiate with them to pass new laws. Let’s see which are likely to be left behind and which may become reality.

What will change

All that is needed to repeal the tuition hike and the special law which Charest’s government imposed on students is a government decree. Pauline Marois has promised to do so hastily. However, she also proposes to go ahead with a forum on tuition fees during which she plans to argue for tuition indexation. However the parties in favour of a tuition fees increase form a majority. Marois could find herself in a strange situation were she to choose to follow up legislatively on her education summit.

Most likely, a PQ government, with the support of CAQ and QS, will put in place new measures to reduce businesses’ influence on political parties. All three parties agree on the fact that a reform of political party funding is necessary: they can easily smooth out the minor differences between them.

Since nobody’s against virtue, both of these opposition parties should also support the proposed PQ reform of Bill 101, peculiarly with respect to the language used in the workplace. The PQ will have a hard time persuading CAQ and QS to impose French at college level, but will probably manage to persuade it to extend Bill 101 to smaller businesses.

Planned increases in funding to keep teenagers in school and to boost the number of doctors should also make it through: CAQ supports the former and the Liberals the latter.

What won’t change so much

The PQ will probably want to tinker with the Plan Nord, the previous government’s great economic development strategy. Quickly, it will face two problems. On the one hand, if it wants to distinguish itself clearly from the Liberals, which is far from certain, it will quickly run into opposition from both CAQ and the Liberals. If, on the other hand, it sticks to strictly cosmetic changes, it will upset its electoral base, sensitive to ecological arguments.

A series of measures to reduce poverty, to electrify transportation, to preserve the environment, or to maintain good pensions have been raised during the campaign by grassroots groups and unions. Though these are necessary, they will not even be discussed at the National Assembly because of the PQ’s half-heartedness regarding these issues.

The PQ also fully subscribes to the dominant type of economic development: it will thus promote knowledge-based economy, the development of the financial sector, and the financialization of the citizen groups and initiatives’ State funding. During all its years in the opposition, it certainly lambasted the government, but most often on issues of form rather than content. For the PQ, Charest’s government was harmful to Québec because it was corrupt, because it sold our resources to foreign interests, and because it caused the student crisis to turn into a social crisis. The outgoing government was not criticized by the PQ for imposing the neoliberal transformation of the State, for overexploiting non-renewable resources or for commodifying education in the name of economic growth.

It is thus less the PQ’s minority status, and more the Third Way approach a certain elite within the party heartily recommends, which leaves me to wonder whether the new government can truly go back to the party’s social democratic past. Let me seriously doubt that any major and required reform of a fiscal, economic, or ecological nature will be implemented.

Simon Tremblay-Pepin is a researcher with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank. 

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