Pauline Marois and the Parti Québécois went into the Quebec election assuming that they could run a campaign built around two gigantic falsehoods. They counted on convincing enough voters to suspend their disbelief, and winning a majority government. Two days before the election, and the script has not gone according to plan. Voters have proved to be considerably less self-deluding than the PQ had hoped.
The PQ's first falsehood centred on independence. It's the party's founding article and raison d'être, and the dream motivating the base and party leaders alike. It's also an idea opposed by the majority of Quebeckers. Opposition to the prospect of another referendum is overwhelming. Ms. Marois and her strategists therefore decided to insist that this election was about the economy, political corruption and especially "Quebec values" – anything and everything but their primary long-term goal of holding and winning another referendum.
At the same time, however, the PQ could not stop being what it is. It remains a sovereigntist party, committed to achieving independence. The party was asking voters to believe that every fibre in its being was in favour of the destination – a destination most Quebeckers do not want to travel to – but that a vote for the PQ was, nevertheless, not a vote in favour of undertaking the journey. It involved telling sovereigntist voters that it was more committed than ever to the long-standing goal, while telling everyone else the exact opposite. It was a strategy of talking out of both sides of its mouth. And it started falling apart as soon as star candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau opened his mouth and reminded everyone of why he and all of his PQ colleagues were running: to make Quebec an independent country. As the American journalist Michael Kinsley once put it, a political gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth.
As the attacks on the PQ's sovereignty agenda from Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard and Coalition Avenir Québec head François Legault took over the first weeks of the campaign and began to show in the polls, an off-balance Ms. Marois accused her opponents of fear-mongering and inventing agendas for her party. She insisted that this was an election, not a referendum. But when asked time and again to swear off a referendum, or at least promise not to hold one during the next term of government, Ms. Marois evaded and retreated into indefinite bafflegab. She delivered her lines with confidence, but her words were hollow. And voters knew it.
She would not hold a referendum, she repeatedly promised, until Quebeckers were "ready." The phrasing was supposed to make the questions go away, but it only raised new ones. When exactly was "ready"? Where could it be found on the calendar? Wouldn't a re-elected PQ whip up artificial tensions with Ottawa and the province's minorities, in order to hasten the arrival of "ready"? Wasn't "ready" the same thing as the old "winning conditions"?
By trying to have it both ways and refusing to be honest, Ms. Marois herself turned the election into a referendum: not a referendum on Quebec's place in Canada, but a referendum on not having a referendum. The PQ lost votes, and a lot of them, from voters who simply want peace and a government that devotes itself to governing. They simply could not believe Ms. Marois's party could be that government.
The other illusion that the PQ tried to sell was the charter of values. It is an exceptionally cynical policy that addresses itself to no real-world problem, other than the PQ's need to win re-election. It tries to convince voters that Quebec society is under threat from its religious minorities, and that the way to ward off this bogeyman is by the legalization of religious discrimination. In fact, the charter makes discrimination on the basis of religion by the provincial government not just possible, but mandatory.
It says something about the current state of politics, and the widespread belief in the stupidity of voters, that policies rotten to the core are sold with slogans representing the opposite of the facts. What is the Conservative federal government's plan to muzzle the chief electoral officer, to introduce partisanship into electoral administration, to make it harder for eligible voters to get on the voters list and generally to create suspicion about the impartiality of the whole system? Why, it's called "The Fair Elections Act."
And how does the PQ sell a charter of values bill that would violate the most fundamental constitutional rights of freedom of conscience, create second-class citizens who can be discriminated against on the basis of religion, and lead to the firing of thousands of religious-minority employees from government offices, daycares and hospitals? It's all part of a PQ election platform that promises to be "More Welcoming to New Quebeckers."
Polls say the charter is popular. But Quebeckers are not mean-spirited people, and support for what the PQ was peddling was predicated in part on voters not asking too many question about how the law will work. It rested in part on the illusion that hijabs, kippahs and turbans could be somehow magically disappeared from hospitals, daycares and government offices without removing – firing – the employees wearing them.
As the questions mounted, and her own candidates committed the gaffe of admitting the truth, Ms. Marois tried vainly to insist that nobody would be fired, nobody would be discriminated against, and nobody would be harmed. People would only be "helped" to find jobs "in the private sector." Yes, "helped." But as the election campaign came to a close, the falseness of those claims was becoming ever more apparent. On Monday, it looks as if Quebeckers will be helping themselves to a new government.