For Quebec sovereigntists, Monday’s election result was a bittersweet victory. The Parti Québécois will form the next government, but with only 54 MNAs – nine seats short of a majority – and only 31.9 per cent of the vote, one of its lowest scores since 1976.
No politician likes heading a minority government (just ask Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty), but for the Péquistes, minority status is much worse because it will prevent them from fully implementing their sovereigntist agenda – and sovereignty has always been the party’s raison d’être.
Faced with a 50-seat federalist Liberal opposition and 19 members of the Coalition Avenir Québec, which steadfastly opposes any move toward another referendum, the Marois government will be like a runner with bound feet, unable to implement the various tactics the party had in store to provoke a backlash in the rest of Canada, revive sovereigntist fervour and prepare the “winning conditions” for a referendum.
Ms. Marois, for instance, will have to shelve a new “Quebec constitution” and a new “Quebec citizenship” that would have contained several clauses bound to be struck down by the courts, such as a law requiring a French test for newcomers running for public office, and another law that would forbid public-service employees from wearing religious symbols such as a Jewish kippa or an Islamic veil. And she’ll have to abandon the idea of holding serial referendums after her demands for more powers are rejected by Ottawa.
She will undoubtedly pick fights with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in order to whip up nationalist sentiment; this will be an easy task given the Harper government’s unpopularity in Quebec. But such moves won’t lead anywhere if Mr. Harper, with his characteristic cool temperament, avoids escalating the quarrels.
On the sovereigntist question, though, the Marois government’s chief adversary won’t be in the National Assembly – it will be within the populace, whose reluctance to secession is growing.
The last CROP poll of the campaign showed that sovereignty has just 28-per-cent support. Again, it’s the old see-saw game: Support for independence diminishes as the PQ is about to take power, and increases when the PQ is out of power.
Moreover, according to the same poll, 68 per cent of Quebeckers, including 37 per cent of PQ supporters, don’t want a referendum. So even if the Marois government had a majority, it would still have to tone down the sovereigntist rhetoric for fear of alienating voters.
The government’s minority status is also likely to stop the PQ from implementing some of its more radical projects, such as a sharp tax increase on high-income earners and a host of measures viewed by the opposition parties as hostile to business. While Ms. Marois said Wednesday that she intends to push ahead with tougher language laws, her government probably will have to shelve large parts of its radical language platform, especially a plan to forbid francophones and immigrants from enrolling in English postsecondary colleges.
But Ms. Marois will be free to cancel the increase in tuition fees that gave rise to the student protest movement that brought havoc to Montreal in the spring. She can do this by cabinet decree to avoid blocking motions by the opposition. The student rebels will celebrate their victory, but Ms. Marois paid a high price for her opportunistic support. The move went squarely against public opinion: As soon as Ms. Marois and her MNAs started to wear the rebellion’s red square emblem, the party began to lose precious points in the polls. This is undoubtedly among the factors that cost the PQ a majority.