Pauline Marois has achieved her long-time dream of becoming the first woman to be premier of Quebec: a feat that comes with major challenges as the Parti Québécois’s failure to win a majority will prevent her from pursuing several elements of her controversial agenda.
Her moment of triumph was derailed when her bodyguards swept her from the stage during her victory speech on Tuesday night after a disturbance outside the hall, but she carried on after police secured the room.
“It is an example of a woman being the head of a government,” she said in a bid to defuse the tension.
Before the incident, Ms. Marois delivered a message to the rest of Canada, saying Quebec will continue to seek independence.
“As a nation we want to decide for ourselves and take the decisions that concern us,” she said as supporters in the packed hall chanted, “We want our country.”
She attempted to reassure anglophones concerned about the PQ’s pursuit of politics of identity. “To my fellow anglophone Quebeckers, I say don’t worry. Your rights will be fully protected. We share the same history and I want us to shape together our common future,” she said in English.
She told the crowd she is moved to have the responsibility of being the first woman elected premier of Quebec.
The PQ fell about a half-dozen seats short of a majority. It started out with 33 per cent of voter support and that was about where it stood on election night with 32 per cent, only one percentage point more than Jean Charest’s Liberals.
Ms. Marois’s victory represents a major comeback for a leader who, only a year ago, survived an attempt to oust her from the party leadership over her refusal to commit to holding another referendum on sovereignty.
In the coming weeks, Ms. Marois will form a cabinet, outline how she will tackle Ottawa in her bid for more powers for Quebec, and evaluate when, if ever, it will be possible to hold another referendum on sovereignty.
Newly elected members such as party adviser Jean-François Lisée, former journalist Pierre Duchesne and former student leader Léo Bureau-Blouin, at 21 the youngest person ever elected to the National Assembly, will change the face of the caucus.
But before Ms. Marois can even consider of trying to revive nationalist sentiment in the province, she will face more pressing matters. Quebec has the largest public debt of any province – almost $253-billion, or 51 per cent of its gross domestic product.
The two major opposition parties, the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec, will push the new PQ government hard on these two issues. But given the devastating blow voters dealt to the Liberals, the party will be too busy regrouping and choosing another leader to defeat the PQ.
Left-wing segments of the PQ will keep Ms. Marois on a short leash, making sure the party stays on the social-democratic, “progressive” course it set during the campaign.
The business community is expected to want the government to deal with the shaky economy before anything else.
The “politics of identity” that emerged in the campaign aimed at reinforcing the French language and culture, such as a promise to ban religious symbols in the public service (except perhaps the crucifix) sparked controversy, as did proposals to restrict francophone and ethnic students’ access to English language colleges and prevent newcomers whose French is poor from running for public office.
In a minority National Assembly, the Liberals and the CAQ could block any legislation to enact such policies, including Ms. Marois’ promise to revamp Bill 101 with new measures to force companies with fewer than 50 employees to operate in French, especially in the retail sector.
Ms. Marois has said a PQ government will demand that Ottawa enforce the French language charter known as Bill 101 in federally regulated companies and hand over control of cultural and communication policies.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper congratulated Ms. Marois but warned her against reopening disputes. “We do not believe that Quebeckers wish to revisit the old constitutional battles of the past,” he said in a statement. “Our government will remain focused on jobs, economic growth and sound management of the economy. We believe that economic issues and jobs are also the priorities of the people of Quebec.”
Many elements of the strategy against Ottawa will be deployed in the early days. And so will several social policies promised during the campaign. Ms. Marois said that within the first 100 days of taking over, she will abolish the Liberals’ university tuition fee hikes and review the funding of post-secondary education.
Ms. Marois will also closely monitor the public hearings of the inquiry into allegations of corruption in the awarding of government construction contracts and financing of political parties. The report may strike an even worse blow to the Liberals than than Tuesday’s election.
At the same time, Ms. Marois’ every move will be carefully monitored by the sovereigntists in the party. But without a strong mandate, any attempt to force another referendum will be stalled.