Gilles Duceppe has a list of inalterable demands. The new federal government holds a weak minority position that leaves it dependent on the Bloc Québécois, barring the extraordinary decision by the opposition to support the government. Canada, held ransom by separatists.
Since the start of the election, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has been warning about just such a scenario, flogging the perils of a minority government beholden to the Bloc. He's been, if anything, more adamant in the last couple of days, in the wake of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's assertion that he would be happy to try his hand at forming a government if the Tories won the election but failed to secure the confidence of the House of Commons.
In any current likely outcome of the May 2 vote, Mr. Ignatieff would need the support of both the NDP and the Bloc, a situation Mr. Harper decries as unstable and dangerous to the country. Mr. Harper knows what he's talking about - after all, he was in exactly that position in his first term.
A quick refresher on modern Canadian political history: In the 2006 election, the Conservatives won a narrow victory, with 124 seats to 103 for the Liberals, 51 for the Bloc, 29 for the NDP, and one Independent.
Mathematically, that meant the Conservatives needed either support from the Official Opposition (the Liberals), or the Bloc Québécois. Any support from the NDP was irrelevant - numerically speaking - assuming the other two opposition parties voted against the government.
How did that arrangement - call it a coalition of the willing - work out in practice? The first Conservative budget passed, with the support of the Bloc. As did the 2007 budget. The budget in the spring of 2008 passed because most Liberal MPs abstained, an endorsement of sorts.
The inaugural Throne Speech actually didn't come to a vote; it was deemed to have passed, with the support of all parties, after amendments were inserted. The second, in the fall of 2007, also passed, even though the Bloc and NDP opposed it; again, the Liberals abstained, allowing the Conservative caucus to carry the day.
So, Mr. Harper needn't fret so much about the instability of a minority government dependent on the Bloc. He's already shown that such a Parliament can work (although he did decry its dysfunction as a reason for triggering the 2008 election).
However, there are some key differences between the Conservative minority government of 2006 and a theoretical runner-up Liberal minority in 2011.
First among them is the fighting spirit of the opposition. In 2006, the defeated Liberals had an interim leader and were in no mood to plunge back into an election - hence the quiet accord on the Throne Speech, and the mass abstentions of 2008. The Conservatives, were they to be toppled from government, would be looking to enter a campaign at the first chance. It's hard to imagine Stephen Harper somehow shying away from the opportunity to defeat the party that had usurped him. It would be up to the NDP and Bloc to keep the Liberals in office.
Another big difference is the relative position of the NDP. Jack Layton's surge continues; assuming the party's support doesn't suffer its typical end-of-campaign ebbing, the NDP could see its seat count rise. The smaller the gap between the Liberals and the NDP, the higher the chances of some sort of formal arrangement between the two parties. Mr. Ignatieff may not want a coalition, but there's no guarantee that the NDP will accept that declaration.
But the biggest difference goes beyond mere political maneuvering. Sometime next year, or in 2013 at the latest, Quebec Premier Jean Charest will need to call a provincial election. Barring a fundamental shift in public opinion, the Parti Québécois is headed to victory in that vote. And then comes a third referendum. Mr. Duceppe is already relishing the prospect of a dominant role for the Bloc in Ottawa, with the Péquistes in power in Quebec City. "Everything again becomes possible," he was reported as saying at the PQ's convention this past weekend.
Catering to Bloc demands to fix a non-existent "fiscal imbalance," as Mr. Harper did in 2006, is one thing. The Bloc would not be so lacking in ambition and imagination in 2011, with a secession referendum on the horizon, and a hobbled Liberal Party in office. What might their demands be? As Mr. Duceppe says, anything at all is possible.
With a report from Bill Curry