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Charest has only himself to blame for Quebec election defeat

Jean Charest was not the first political leader, and he will not be the last, to fall in love with his success and to believe that it could continue. Hubris blinded him to his weaknesses such that it took the Quebec electorate to tear the veil from his eyes Tuesday night, defeating his Liberal government. Mr. Charest appeared to have lost his Sherbrooke seat, to add insult to injury.

Nonetheless, the victory of the Parti Québécois was like the proverbial kiss from your sister. The PQ, facing an unpopular government led by a Premier tempting fate in trying for a fourth mandate, mustered only about a third of the vote – hardly a mandate for jubilation. If that were the best result the PQ could harvest, under such favourable circumstances, it does not provide much encouragement for the idea that within the next few years the PQ could organize a referendum and remove Quebec from Canada.

The new Premier of a minority government, Pauline Marois, has shifted the Parti Québécois to the political left: favouring big tax increases on the "rich," of whom there are not many in Quebec; on corporations; on owners of potential capital gains. Simultaneously, her party wants to freeze university fees, add new spending for social programs and expand health-care, all the while balancing the budget next year.

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The result will be the kind of splendid internal incoherence of the kind that defines many opposition parties that come to office having promised more than they can possibly fulfill.

Having shifted her party to the left, Ms. Marois also yielded to hard-line secessionists in her ranks, promising a referendum when 15 per cent of the province's electors signed a petition demanding one.

Then, she spent the campaign saying she and the legislature would decide on a referendum, which means, if arithmetic means anything, that her party could not get any such measure for a referendum through the National Assembly where two parties – the Liberals and the new Coalition Avenir Québec – oppose any referendum.

Ms. Marois will therefore resort, as she indicated throughout the campaign, to a series of confrontations, demands and theatrics with Ottawa, trying to provoke the Harper government that is very unpopular in Quebec.

She will be hoping to stir a furious reaction from public opinion in the rest of Canada and impolitic responses from the federal government to persuade Quebeckers that their "nation," (a phrase the Harper government sanctioned and that will now be thrown in its face) cannot be comfortable within Canada.

Despite her middling score in public opinion, give Ms. Marois her due. A year ago, her party was racked by internal turmoil. Mutterings surrounded her continued leadership.

The party was third in the polls. But the shift to the left consolidated the core of the party's vote, the longevity of the Charest government eroded further its support, and the strength of the new party, the CAQ, split the non-secessionist vote.

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For Mr. Charest, he has no one but himself to blame for Tuesday's result. He ought to have left, as sensible leaders do, before he tempted fate, to have prepared a succession, to have departed having won three consecutive mandates, one minority and two majorities. Instead, he lingered, hoping something would turn up to produce a fourth mandate. Predictably, he lost, because in a democracy it is legitimate and normal for voters to seek change, which is what Quebeckers did Tuesday night.

Nationalism is always alive in Quebec. It takes various forms, but it will always be present. This sense of belonging to a distinct minority in Canada is the defining characteristic of francophone Quebec. It was on display again last night, even if this nationalism was constrained by a realism that the secession option of the PQ remains a long, long shot.

Quebeckers, politically shrewd, gave the PQ a limited, minority government, encouraged it to fly the fleur de lys, expand social programs, tax the "rich," but not to do anything rash.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail's national affairs columnist, has won all three of Canada's leading literary prizes -- the Governor-General's award for non-fiction book writing, the National Magazine Award for political writing, and the National Newspaper Award for column writing (twice). He has also won the Hyman Solomon Award for excellence in public policy journalism. More

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