When Québec premier Pauline Marois called a snap election earlier this month, the conventional wisdom was virtually certain on two points: that Marois’s sovereigntist Parti québécois (PQ) would win a majority government and that the election would turn on the Marois government’s introduction of the Charte de la laïcité (Quebec Charter of Values).
Less than two weeks later, one poll today shows that the PQ is actually trailing the more centrist, federalist Parti libéral du Québec (Liberal Party, or PLQ). The CROP/La Presse poll finds that the PLQ would win 39% of the vote, the PQ would win 36%, and François Legault’s struggling, center-right, ‘soft’ sovereigntist Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ) would win just 13%. Québec solidaire, the more leftist, sovereigntist alternative, wins 10%. The PQ still leads among Francophones by a margin of 43% to 30%, though the Liberals win 71% of Anglophones. Far from winning a majority government, Marois could actually lose her minority government if the Liberals keep gaining strength.
What’s more, the emergence of former Quebecor CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau (pictured above, left, with Marois) as a PQ candidate fundamentally transformed the election’s focus away from the cultural issues surrounding the religious freedom debate and the Charter of Values — and toward the issue of Québécois independence. Right now, that’s working to the benefit of Liberals, because a majority of Québec voters today oppose independence.
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Péladeau, when he announced his candidacy last Sunday for the PQ, surprised everyone by declaring his strong support for Québec’s independence. That took the focus off Marois’s Charter of Values and put it squarely on whether Marois will call a referendum if the PQ wins a majority government on April 7. Marois herself spent last week musing about an independent Québec, including post-succession monetary policy and retaining the Canadian dollar.
That made it look as if Péladeau is more in control of the PQ campaign than Marois, thereby undermining Québec’s sitting premier. This week, with the PQ’s poll numbers declining, Marois is now trying to avoid talking about the sovereignty issue and limit the damage from her star candidate’s outspoken entry into provincial politics.
The idea was that Péladeau, as a well-known businessman, would give the PQ more credibility on economic policy, thereby peeling away some of the more economically conservative voters that previously supported Legault and the CAQ in the last election — and maybe even some Liberals.
Instead, all the talk about sovereignty and independence has given Liberal Party leader Philippe Coulliard an opportunity to frame himself as the candidate talking about ‘real issues,’ including his plans to cut taxes while also cutting spending in order to balance the province’s budget. Polling data from the past week suggests that former CAQ voters are moving to the Liberals instead of to the PQ. What’s more, the conservatism of Péladeau as the PQ’s top candidate seems to be pushing some PQ voters toward supporting Québec solidaire instead.
Canadian federalists like to argue that Marois represents the last gasp of the stridently pro-independence generation that came of age during the Révolution tranquil (Quiet Revolution) of the 1960s, which also includes former premiers Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard and former Bloq québécois leader Gilles Duceppe.
But Péladeau, who was born in 1961, belies that notion, and if he wins a seat from the Saint-Jérôme riding, a suburb northwest of Montréal, he could easily champion the ‘yes’ campaign in a future referendum.
It’s useful to think of the Québécois electorate in three groups:
- Around 35% to 40% of the electorate, which typically votes Liberal, disproportionately clustered around Montréal, is either Anglophone or sufficiently federalist that it would almost always oppose independence.
- Around 35% to 40% of the electorate, which typically votes péquiste, is the leftist base of the PQ and would almost always support independence. (Though in regular provincial elections, some of these voters are increasingly supporting Québec solidaire).
- The final 20% to 30% of the electorate leans more rightward than leftward, clusters around Québec City, and can bounce between the sovereigntist and federalist camps. It’s this swing group that Mario Dumont appealed to so successfully in the 2007 provincial election, and it’s the group that gave Legault and the CAQ such a strong showing in the September 2012 election.
What makes Péladeau so dangerous in the long run is what made Bouchard such an effective advocate for Québec’s independence. Unlike Parizeau, Marois or Duceppe, who all represent the PQ’s dominant strand of statist ideology, Bouchard came to provincial politics directly from Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney’s government — as environmental minister and Mulroney’s top Québec lieutenant.
Within three years of leaving federal politics, Bouchard had formed the Bloc, and in the federal election of 1993, Bouchard won 54 out of 75 Québecois ridings in the House of Commons — enough to make Bouchard the leader of the opposition, given the fracture within the Canadian right. Bouchard — not Parizeau, who was Québec’s premier at the time — led the ‘Yes’ campaign in the October 1995 referendum lost by just 54,288 votes, a margin of 1.16%.
Péladeau is arguably even more conservative than Bouchard was. As the CEO of Quebecor, he has long-time business ties to Mulroney. He’s not just more pro-business than pro-union, he’s decidedly anti-union. It’s too soon to tell if Péladeau will be as successful as Bouchard. But he could conceivably bring a surge of the soft nationalist, conservative voters to the pro-independence cause in the same way that Bouchard did — and that’s a prospect that should give Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper or a future prime minister Justin Trudeau a lot of anxiety.
So far, however, Péladeau’s candidacy has had the opposite effect, because former CAQ supporters today just don’t seem interested in revisiting the independence issue. The election’s not over yet, and the PQ is still very much capable of winning a majority government. Péladeau, who now virtually everyone believes will eventually succeed Marois, is just beginning his political career, and the PQ hasn’t had an articulate, pro-business separatist leader since Bouchard retired from politics in 2001.