Coalition-Avenir-Québec, the new party that is François Legault's brainchild, is a strange animal. It will have to live with an awful acronym, CAQ, which sounds bad in both official languages. Its members will be " caquistes," a weird appellation that lends itself to endless French puns, the most popular one being "the caquistes cackle" (" caquètent" in French).
This is a party with no real program, practically no members or high-profile supporters, and a distinctly uncharismatic leader – a party whose personality is so vague that it's been successively qualified as rightist or leftist or appealing to the middle. And finally – and this is a first in Quebec's past five decades – a party that is neither federalist nor separatist, in other words a party that defines itself in negative terms.
And yet, the polls say that if an election were held today, the CAQ might either form the government or, by stealing a great chunk of the PQ vote, allow Jean Charest's Liberals to come up the middle and be re-elected for a fourth term.
The CAQ was officially launched last week in a lacklustre ceremony that looked more like the opening of a golf club or a Tim Hortons franchise than the launching of a political party. Mr. Legault, a former PQ minister, and Charles Sirois, a successful businessman who represents the federalist wing of the coalition, were the only speakers, and they unveiled a 20-point "actions to act on the future" (sic) plan that doesn't have many new ideas and is extremely limited in scope.
If there's a philosophy behind the CAQ's program, it is the idea that governments should be run like companies, with "result-oriented" policies. Mr. Legault, an accountant who was one of the founders of Air Transat before entering politics, believes in simple, if not simplistic, solutions. Basically, he wants universities to produce more degrees, teachers to produce more good students and physicians to produce patients in better health. The problem is that Mr. Legault tried to apply the same formulas when he served in previous PQ governments as education minister and health minister, to no avail.
But the obvious limitations of the CAQ's platform have no importance in today's Quebec.
People are desperate for a change in politics. They started at the federal level by throwing the Bloc Québécois out and electing a gang of Dippers they knew nothing about. They're still in the same mood. They're angry at the provincial Liberal government, but they don't feel like voting for the PQ opposition, for the same reason that they voted against the Bloc federally: They don't want to hear about sovereignty any more.
Not that they are against sovereignty in principle, nor have they become federalists. What propelled Mr. Legault in the polls is his rejection of the forced choice between sovereignty and federalism that has dominated Quebec politics for the past 40 years. Yet he can appeal to PQ voters because even though he's stopped working for sovereignty, he comes across as a francophone nationalist who hasn't crossed to the other side by becoming a full-fledged federalist. He has no constitutional label.
What's happening is that Quebeckers don't want sovereignty, but they don't want to vote against it. It's a matter of pride and keeping face. François Legault offers them a honourable way out: Close the file, let it rest.
Of course, the CAQ is poised to lose some ground, now that it's become a real rather than a hypothetical party. But its very existence is enough to terrorize the PQ and worry the Liberals.