Québec politics is seldom predictable and most election results often demonstrate that the political analysts are off the mark. For some time, the unpopularity of Jean Charest’s Liberal government seemed so extensive that the party would suffer a huge defeat and even be reduced to a distant third place. So, on election night of Sept. 4, there were a few surprises. First, while Jean Charest lost his own seat, the Liberals were still a strong second party. They obtained 31 percent of the popular vote, only one percent less than the victorious Parti Québécois. The actual seats won were 50, only four behind the PQ. Therefore, the result was a minority government in a 125-seat provincial legislature.
The second surprise to the pundits was the supposedly “dismal outcome” for the newly formed Coalition party. Yet, I would maintain this new third party did extremely well since they won 19 seats. New third parties seldom make a breakthrough to opposition status, let alone forming a government as some predicted. Becoming a government or opposition party takes time, especially with a new party label that has no history. Another party, Québec Solidaire, managed only two seats. The ADQ, despite the appearance of some promise years ago, was nothing but a flash in the pan.
But in a minority government, the Coalition party holds the balance of power and accordingly, will have a potentially large role in Québec politics if it develops a sound strategy for improving its prospects in the next provincial election.
Indeed, because the distance of the outcome of seats and the popular vote was close, many pundits actually made the mistake that Pauline Marois was automatically the premier-elect. Not so, if the Coalition party had decided to continue supporting Jean Charest. In a parliamentary government, whoever commands the support of the majority of members in the legislature would be the premier, whether Charest had a seat or not. The informal political activity among the parties determined on election night that Marois would be given the opportunity to form government. Columnist Andrew Coyne seemed to be the only pundit to understand this, even suggesting that Jean Charest could still continue to lead the Liberal party – until Charest made the statement that he would be stepping down as leader of the Liberal party only hours after Coyne made his comment. But technically, he was right.
As for Pauline Marois, everyone including the Liberals conceded she was the premier-elect and so now the question most frequently on the minds of Canadians concerns the future of Québec. There is considerable fatigue over the issue of Québec separation, even within Québec itself, and so Premier Marois will have to be extremely careful on pursuing this aspiration. But frankly, given the results of the last referendum which was so close—less than one percent difference—the pursuit of a third referendum was inevitable. It will happen again and despite the appearance of malaise we are seeing now, this could rapidly change. Some of us have seen this before—when the chips are down, people will react very strongly. Yet, a third time will be the last, whatever the outcome.
Pauline Marois is also not to be underestimated. She is not an effective leader of the PQ during an election campaign as compared to Levesque, Johnson, Parizeau, and Bouchard who became provincial premiers, too. But because she will be premier, her role will give her considerable advantage to lead Québec into a provincial interest-first campaign and she has demonstrated she could be tough. In fact, for the first time during his government since 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper may actually have someone who could match him in any negotiations. Harper has had it pretty easy, dealing with premiers who are ready to make accommodations to him such as British Columbia’s premiers Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark. Marois is cut from a different cloth and in some ways will be harder to deal with than the PQ leaders of the past mentioned above. Prime Minister Harper will have to watch himself more carefully because if Canadian federalism is eroded due to a serious misstep on federal-provincial relations attributed to him, he could become quickly vulnerable by 2015—just like former Prime Minister Mulroney after the failed Meech Lake Accord after 1990.
Marois will be careful too—she has exhibited patience with her political ideas and knows how to position her government and the issues she is pursuing. For the time being, since she has been handed the reins of power, any wrong move could trigger another provincial election that will test whether she can achieve a stronger mandate. Her strength is that she is experienced enough to know this trap. Don’t count on her making any mistakes. Some of that mettle was well demonstrated earlier when a gunman created some havoc, killing one person and injuring another, just a short distance away from her speech. She proved to be very cool in this circumstance and that is the real Pauline Marois.