What issues could dominate voter choice in the current Quebec electoral contest? While Quebec politics are different due to the constant fault line of la question nationale, economic issues and the pocketbook vote do play a very large part.
Since the Quiet Revolution, economic issues have dominated the electoral landscape. The 1962 election was run on the maîtres chez nous slogan, which referred not so much to the relationship with Canada but rather to reducing foreign control of the Quebec economy by nationalizing electricity and, eventually, setting up the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec as an economic motor for investment. In the early 1970s, it was the launch of the James Bay project that attracted voter attention. In 1976, the Parti Québécois's victory was propelled by the economic wreckage and corruption that many Quebeckers associated with Robert Bourassa's leadership. In 1985, the PQ succumbed to a similar fate, having made enemies of public-sector unions.
In fact, Liberal Premier Jean Charest looked forward to running the 2012 race on the economy. This has been the constant theme of his leadership. Since he won the 2003 election, the province's political debate has been dominated by the left-right divide: whether the "Quebec model," with its emphasis on the state's role, is still viable or whether there needs to be an overhaul of public finances and a new emphasis on the private sector. Even the recent brouhaha over the attempt by Lowe's to take over Rona reaches to the heart of the Quebec Inc. model.
The central conflict over university tuition hikes derives from this divide, as do persistent concerns over employment, health care, daycare and natural resource development. Plan Nord, which was supposed to be Mr. Charest's main campaign theme and legacy, is emblematic of this: a far-reaching plan for northern development based on extending hydroelectric production and creating new mining ventures, plus massive private-sector investment in infrastructure and transportation.
Where do economic issues leave the main Quebec political parties?
The Liberal Party has vacillated between its Quiet Revolution roots and a newfound private-sector fervour. Now, it faces direct competition on the right from the Coalition Avenir Québec, whose leader, François Legault, is a former PQ cabinet minister but is better known as a successful businessman and co-founder of Air Transat. His economic messages are front and centre in this campaign, particularly when added to the CAQ's anti-corruption slogan: "Enough!"
On the left, the PQ has more economic clout than some may think. For one thing, the party has been in power with real governance experience that includes the fight against corruption. For another, leader Pauline Marois may not be a sovereigntist's dream come true, but she does have the economic credentials to make her a realistic alternative as premier.
Still, even economic matters are tinged with the national question. Overall, Quebeckers are like any other voters; they prefer economic stability and prosperity. But most Quebec francophones also have nationalist sympathies on identity issues. If Ms. Marois can convince them that the PQ can deliver a responsible economic platform, she may well be the next premier. But if Mr. Charest can play on the economic fears associated with separatism and outflank Mr. Legault, then he may be able to eke out another bare victory.
Antonia Maioni is associate professor of political science at McGill University.