A Quebec election that was too close to call has turned out to be just that: less than one percentage point – about 40,000 votes – separated the Parti Québécois and the Liberal party in the final ballot last night, with the third party Coalition Avenir Québec close behind.
With so many three-way races, ridings across the province split every which way, and as a result the PQ now has in hand a minority government – 54 seats – and the Liberals making a stronger showing than polls had predicted, forming the official opposition with 50 seats. The CAQ, the biggest loser in the parliamentary distortion of translating votes into seats, ended up with 19 seats, an impressive showing for a new party but a big disappointment in its quest for power.
In the end, a volatile but engaged Quebec electorate – voter turnout reached more than 70 per cent – opted for change and continuity at the same time. Change came in electing a PQ government, elevating the CAQ to official party status and holding the balance of power in the National Assembly; continuity in allowing the Liberals to form a strong official opposition to provide an effective buffer to the PQ. While the Liberals lost over a dozen seats, including the defeat of Jean Charest in Sherbrooke, voters were reluctant to turn over power to a completely new alternative such as the CAQ. Instead, they chose a tried and tested change agent in the form of the PQ, but placed significant limits on its experience of power as a minority government in the National Assembly.
This PQ government will be historic in several respects, not least of which is that it is led by Pauline Marois, who becomes Quebec's first female premier, a situation long overdue given the tradition of strong women in politics and the quasi-gender-parity most parties strive for here. And the woman in question is hardly the new kid on the block that we have seen elsewhere in Canada: Ms. Marois is one of the longest-serving parliamentarians in the National Assembly, a legacy that stretches back to the original leaders of the sovereignty movement, and holds an impressive roster of ministerial experience under her belt.
She has held every important portfolio in Quebec including health, education and finance. The doubters about the impact of women in politics should note that Ms. Marois was responsible for creating the universal daycare plan, one of Quebec's most popular social programs, and for implementing the Family Medicine Groups in primary care reform. She is considered formidable in more ways than one, but this latest victory was hard fought, after being thwarted for the PQ leadership by André Boisclair, and having her leadership challenged from within by more aggressive sovereigntist party members.
In the end, Ms. Marois prevailed, but this is also the first time the PQ finds itself in a minority government, and it is unclear that the party is suited to the kind of delicate balancing act required to survive and prosper in such a situation. Much of the economic platform, with its emphasis on "fiscal justice" – including higher taxes for the wealthy and increases in mining fees – is at direct odds with the more right-of-centre economic approach of the Liberals and CAQ, meaning that the PQ government's hands could be tied when they bring down their first budget in early 2013. It remains to be seen how the opposition will react to Ms. Marois' promise made to students that she would abolish the new tuition fee hikes that triggered the student protests of the spring.
On issues of language and identity – such as reinforcing Bill 101 or dealing with the secularism charter the PQ has developed – the government risks coming up against the concerns of the opposition parties and will have to tread very carefully to avoid the perception of heavy-handedness in this regard. And, of course, on the question of a referendum on sovereignty, Ms. Marois understands that it is not only the opposition, but indeed the majority of the Quebec electorate, that are not ready to support such a measure.
Ms. Marois' appeal for sovereignty during the campaign was an important rallying cry for the traditional supporters of the PQ, although the results show that she may have overplayed the issue in failing to significantly widen the party's appeal. It is highly unlikely that a referendum question would be placed before the National Assembly in a minority government situation and with the limited support for the sovereignty alternative at this point in time in the polls. Still, a party with the goal of changing the status of Quebec is obviously not going to lie low when it comes to flexing its muscle against the perceived confines of federalism. Ms. Marois has put Prime Minister Stephen Harper on notice that she will come calling, often, in trying to put the concept of provincial autonomy to the test in the areas of immigration, employment insurance, cultural issues, and the like.
Ms. Marois' first challenge is to put together an effective government to face the National Assembly when it reconvenes in October. By any measure, she has a strong bench to choose from, representative of most of Quebec's regions, although her own voice will likely dominate in economic matters. There is plenty of girl power surrounding the new Premier, including former ministers Agnès Maltais and Marie Malavoy, and she can count on new expertise from Réjean Hébert, a respected physician, and Diane de Courcy, Montreal school commission chair.
There are former BQ MPs Serge Cardin and Stéphane Bergeron who may be itching to fill the role of intergovernmental affairs, but Ms. Marois has to balance this energy with the more nauanced exercise of power in a minority government. So, too, will outspoken big guns such as former journalist Bernard Drainville and Jean-François Lisée, have to be handled with care if Ms. Marois wants to maintain both internal party peace, a working relationship with the opposition in the National Assembly, and some form of harmony with linguistic and cultural minorities in Quebec.
Battered and leaderless, the Liberal party has still managed to re-elect most of its former ministers, meaning that the PQ is facing a seasoned Liberal party in the role of official opposition. The Liberals will likely face more body blows as the Charbonneau commission rolls on this fall, but it has shown that it is a survivor. It will likely allow the PQ government to also survive, at least in the short term, and for all its bluster, the CAQ will probably do the same. This means that Ms. Marois could have at least a year to make her mark on Quebec, and Canada, for better or for worse.
Antonia Maioni is an associate professor of political science at McGill University.