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Quebec Premier Jean Charest speaks to delegates Sunday, November 14, 2010 at the Quebec Liberal Party general council meeting in Levis Que. (Jacques Boissinot/Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)
Quebec Premier Jean Charest speaks to delegates Sunday, November 14, 2010 at the Quebec Liberal Party general council meeting in Levis Que. (Jacques Boissinot/Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Lysiane Gagnon

An online petition with a populist twist Add to ...

Did Mark Zuckerberg, the young maverick who invented Facebook, ever think his revolutionary social network, at first intended to spread student gossip on a few university campuses, would become a spectacular political tool?

From what we know of the ex-Harvard student turned billionaire (and all I know about him comes from the wonderfully funny film Social Network), probably not.

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In any case, Quebec might have become the first testing ground for the use of Facebook as a political tactic that gives a 21st-century twist to the old "recall" procedure favoured by the defunct Reform party. (The likes of Preston Manning wanted to empower voters to recall MPs before the end of their mandates.)

Last Monday, some activists posted a petition on the site of the National Assembly, calling for the resignation of Premier Jean Charest. Access to the site requires the assent of a single MNA, and Amir Khadir, the sole representative of the left-wing party Québec Solidaire, was only too happy to oblige. Within 24 hours of the petition being posted, it had gathered more than 50,000 signatures. The following day, as the word spread like wildfire on Facebook and Twitter, so many people tried to sign the petition that the servers of the Quebec legislature's website crashed several times. By the end of the week, the petition was closing in on the 200,000 mark - at one point gathering 3,000 signatures an hour.

Such an online petition using social networks is, in a sense, more credible than the old-style paper petitions. Signing it requires some work: One has to provide a name and address that will be made public, as well as an e-mail address to confirm the signature. Of course, it's possible to sign more than once, but each time, one has to fill out a form and come up with another e-mail address, which makes the operation a bit more demanding than scribbling an illegible name and a made-up street address on a sheet of paper.

So many serious allegations of corruption have surfaced during the past two years that popular anger toward the governing Liberals has reached an unprecedented level of intensity. Not a week passes without another presumed scandal being unearthed by the province's most serious investigative journalists, giving some credence to the much-maligned Maclean's headline calling Quebec "the most corrupt province" in the country.

Although Mr. Charest is not personally involved in any scandal, as head of a Liberal government, he is an obvious target. His steadfast refusal to set up a commission of inquiry into the countless allegations of corruption (especially in the construction industry) makes many people wary.

The success of the online petition against Mr. Charest is not surprising, though. It reflects what the polls have been saying for months. And, after all, almost two million Quebeckers voted against the Liberals in the last election. What is surprising, however, is the petition's instant take-off, and this in itself sends a powerful message.

That said, it would be regrettable if this sort of tactic were to be used routinely. Such direct democracy is a crude, unacceptable way of solving political problems, whether it comes from right-wing populists like the former Reformers or from the left-wing activists who started the National Assembly petition.

As La Presse columnist Alain Dubuc wisely wrote, "You don't flush elected officials. You vote against them at the next election."

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