Marois calls snap election with eye on Québécois separatist majority


Despite polls that generally show a slim but steady lead for Québec premier Pauline Marois’s government, her decision to call snap elections after just 17 months in office leaves her party, the sovereignist Parti québécois (PQ) is hardly a lock to return to power, let alone to win a majority government.Canada Flag IconQuebec Flag Iconpng

That makes the April 7 race to elect all 125 members of the Assemblée nationale (National Assembly) an incredibly high-stakes moment in Québécois politics — and, by extension, Canadian politics.

In contrast to the September 2012 election, essentially a referendum on a decade of rule by the Parti libéral du Québec (Liberal Party, or PLQ) and premier Jean Charest, the upcoming spring election will instead be a referendum on Marois (pictured above) and whether the province is willing to entrust a majority government to Marois’s separatist, leftist party.  If Marois loses, it will take the wind out of the sails of the sovereignist movement in Québec, especially just a year before federal elections in Canada in which the Bloc Québécois, a PQ-affiliated party meant to represent the province’s interest in Ottawa.  If Marois wins, it might be the last opportunity for the Meech Lake/Charlottetown generation of Québécois politicians to push forward with a third (and possibly final) referendum on Québec’s independence.

If Québec held its provincial election tomorrow, Marois would win a majority government, according to polls.  But that’s hardly much comfort — there are at least five reasons to doubt whether Marois can truly pull it off:

A narrow lead for an unpopular government.  Marois’s lead is incredibly shallow.  ThreeHundredEight‘s model shows that the PQ would win 69 seats and the PLQ would win 49, with other parties taking just seven seats.  A Léger/Journal du Montréal poll released Tuesday shows the PQ would win 37% and the PLQ would win 35%.  Among Francophones, the PQ has a lead of 45% to 23%.  But that’s hardly a recipe for a landslide victory — or even a narrow majority government.

Languishing far behind in third place is the center-right Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ), a center-right party founded in 2011 by François Legault, which would win just 15% — that’s almost half the support that it won (27.05%) in September 2012.  The leftist Québec Solidaire would win just 8%.

The poll also shows that the Marois government is simply not that popular — Marois has an approval rating of 38%, with disapproval of 57%.  Even among francophones, Marois’s negatives are slightly higher than her positives (48% unsatisfied, 46% satisfied).  Just 27% of Québec voters prefer Marois as premier, slightly ahead of the 25% who prefer PLQ leader Philippe Couillard.

Generally speaking, polls show the PQ on the rise and the PLQ falling under Couillard’s leadership.  Couillard, a former health minister who overwhelmingly won the leadership contest to replace Charest in March 2013, is still adjusting to the role of leading Québec’s chief opposition party.  But last summer, polls showed the PLQ with a nearly 10-point lead over the PQ, a lead that has not only now evaporated but reversed.

So the trend seems very good for Marois, the PQ now holds a consistent polling lead, and its push to enact a ‘secular charter’ (la charte de la laïcité) that would ban the wearing of religious symbols, including the Muslim hijab, remains popular notwithstanding international condemnation.  Most importantly, Marois would certainly not call snap elections if she didn’t believe she could improve her position, right?

And yet…. Behind the headline matchup numbers, even the polls tell a narrative of a much weaker government than observers are describing.

Liberal residual strength.  It’s also easy to underestimate the PLQ’s strength.  Remember that in September 2012, Marois had just about every variable breaking her way.  In addition to the fatigue factor in trying to convince voters to elect the Liberals to a fourth consecutive term, Charest had become wildly unpopular for his harsh (some argued autocratic) response to student protesters and for corruption charges involving the construction industry and Charest’s government that are still under investigation by the Charbonneau Commission.  Far from an embarrassing loss, Charest’s Liberals won just five fewer seats than the Parti québécois, their 31.20% share of the vote just shy of the PQ’s 31.95% share.

Couillard hasn’t necessarily been a mistake-free leader.  He’s not exactly likable, had some trouble maintaining a united opposition, he has talked about his pride in being a Canadian (which doesn’t exactly appeal to soft sovereignists), and he backtracked, to some degree, on his initially strident opposition to Marois’s ‘charter of values’ after Liberal legislator Fatima Houda-Pepin, the National Assembly’s only Muslim, left the party over the issue.

Given his rookie errors, Couillard isn’t hopeless in April’s election, especially if he can offer a compelling platform to Québec voters that plays to the Liberal strength on bread-and-butter economic issues.  The Léger poll shows that on most major issues, Québec voters trust the Liberals more than (or just as much as) the PQ — the Liberals lead on providing provide health care, creating jobs, reigning in the deficit and maintaining roads and infrastructure.  Voters trust the two parties roughly the same on the issues of improving education and developing Québec’s energy potential.  The PQ leads only on fighting corruption, attending to reasonable accommodation and promoting the French language, regional development and sovereignty.

Former CAQ voters won’t necessarily break Péquiste.  The decline in the CAQ’s support is the main reason Marois has such high hopes for a majority government… but that works both ways.

CAQ voters, like supporters of its predecessor, Mario Dumont’s Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), are something of a swing constituency.  They’re typically more conservative than PQ voters on economic issues, but the Parti québécois champions a kind of social and cultural conservatism with respect to preserving French Canadian heritage.  CAQ/ADQ voters are also typically soft sovereignists — they’re not necessarily pro-independence, but neither are they federalists unsympathetic to sovereignty-based arguments.  Geographically, the CAQ and the ADQ have done best in and around Québec City, the provincial capital, which falls politically somewhere between the urban sophistication of Montréal and more traditional rural constituencies.

In this week’s Léger poll, CAQ voters overwhelming prefer the Liberals as their second choice over the PQ by a margin of 44% to 19%.  In Québéc City, Marois’s approval rating is even lower than average (31%) and her disapproval rating higher (64%).  Even among the wider circle of 2012 CAQ supporters, the Liberals seem to have an edge over the PQ, though.  In the final Léger poll before the last election, Liberals also outpaced the PQ as the second choice of CAQ voters by a margin of 31% to 22%.

Marois is hoping that she can consolidate her supporters and pick off most of the struggling CAQ’s 18 seats.  But it’s not necessarily certain that former CAQ voters will turn so universally to Marois.

Provincial polls can be untrustworthy.  Less than two months before the British Columbia election in May 2013, the BC New Democratic Party looked like it had an unassailable lead over the BC Liberal Party.  Instead, premier Christy Clark actually gained seats for the BC Liberals, despite polls that showed the BC NDP winning a single-digit victory.  The same thing happened in April 2012 in Alberta’s election, when the upstart, social and fiscal conservative Wildrose Party led the long-ruling Progressive Conservatives.  As in British Columbia, premier Alison Redford won a landslide victory — for the party that polls projected to lose.  Québec polls have generally been more reliable in the past, but there’s no doubting that Canadian pollsters misread the electorate in the most recent provincial elections in Canada’s third- and fourth-most populous provinces.  In a campaign where the PQ lead is easily within the margin of victory, and where the balance of power will come down to two dozen marginal seats, it’s worth wondering whether surveys can accurately capture a clear portrait of voter sentiment.

Economic issues can trump even strong cultural issues.  There are essentially five defining characteristics of Marois’s 17-month minority government:

  • First, after winning election on the basis of supplicating Québec student protesters and announcing to great fanfare on her first day in office that she wouldn’t pursue student fee increases, Marois instituted a smaller, 3% tuition increased in February 2013.
  • Secondly, Marois has also generally (if quietly) pursued the development of Québec’s potentially rich mineral resources with as much determination as the Charest government.
  • Thirdly, Marois pursued the secular charter, despite the fact that it caused an international uproar — it’s hard not to believe that the charter represents much more than a populist effort to win votes from traditional voters who feel threatened by Québec’s growing immigrant class.
  • Fourthly, Marois has advanced a very aggressive program of French preservation, including her government’s infamous ‘pasta’ menu incident and a more coordinated legislative attempt to pass Bill 14, which would have amended Québec’s La charte de la langue française (Charter of the French Language, also known as ‘Bill 101′) by giving the provincial government more power to require small businesses use French as their everyday workplace language.
  • Finally, her government failed to live up to a promise to balance the provincial budget; instead, the 2013-14 budget will include a $2.5 billion shortfall, an outcome that caused Fitch to downgrade the province’s credit rating outlook from stable to negative.

Taken together, it’s not hard to argue that Marois has focused more on fighting cultural battles than managing Québec’s economy and that, on economic issues, Marois has mostly adopted previous Liberal policy (except on fiscal discipline).  That might still be enough to win a majority in Québec, given that cultural issues are so much more visceral and emotion in provincial politics.  But it leaves Marois weak to a challenge that Couillard and the Liberals would be better economic stewards.  It’s a challenge that would require a focused and flawless Liberal campaign, but it’s not impossible.

Photo credit to Clement Allard/Canadian Press.

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