It was an election, not a referendum. But the party that won, and won a majority government no less, won because it turned the campaign into a referendum on not having another referendum – a subject on which Quebeckers overwhelmingly agree.
"Together, we will take care of real problems" was the Liberal slogan. The province that Philippe Couillard's party has won the right to govern suffers from more than its fair share of real economic, social and budgetary problems – acutely real problems. Mr. Couillard and his team have no magic wand to make them go away, and the campaign was largely not a debate over how to deal with those issues. The Liberals did not win a battle over competing options on education policy, or health, or taxes. The Liberals won because they could promise that in office, they would spend all of their time thinking about those issues. They could credibly promise that they would try to do what normal governments do: govern.
The Parti Québécois promised the exact opposite. Yes, Pauline Marois' PQ tried to insist that separatism was not its real agenda, and it went into the election assuming it could win by temporarily burying its sovereignty obsession. That illusion fell away the moment star candidate Pierre-Karl Péladeau opened his mouth, punched his fist in the air, and announced that he was running to make Quebec a country. Then and there, the wheels started coming off the PQ bus.
The PQ's desperate attempts to regain the momentum by doubling down on what it saw as its trump card – the mean-spirited, small-minded, paranoiac and allegedly popular charter of values – only made things worse. One of the PQ's celebrity backers defended it with a delusional rant in which she expressed her fear that rich, Muslim men from McGill would take over her apartment building's swimming pool. Reasonable Quebeckers were embarrassed. And then a PQ candidate admitted that yes, a law making it illegal to wear a kippah, turban, hijab or other religious symbol while working in a government office, or a hospital, or a daycare, would mean that people exercising their consitutional right to freedom of religion would be fired. Reasonable Quebeckers were aghast.
The PQ's attempt to double deceive, on sovereignty and the charter, didn't work. If you elect a separatist party, it will try to create the winning conditions for separation. If you pass a law ordering that thousands of Quebeckers be discriminated against on the basis of religion, they will be discriminated against. To follow the election campaign was to watch the Quebec electorate waking up to reality, day after day.
And it could have been worse for the PQ. It wasn't just the Liberals who picked up PQ seats. The last-minute surge of Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), which jumped in the polls over the last few days, allowed it to steal several formerly solid PQ ridings. The CAQ's share of the popular vote nearly equalled the PQ. Given another week of campaigning, and Ms. Marois' party could have been pushed down to third place.
The Liberals and the CAQ are both committed to not holding another referendum. Those two parties captured two thirds of the vote.
The election result is not a great victory for federalism; in Quebec, things are never so simple as that. But it is a crushing defeat for separatism. Monday's election was a referendum on whether Quebec should have a normal government – a government that sees governing as its job. Voters answered that question with an overwhelming "Yes."