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Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)
Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

The PQ has won office but lost ground Add to ...

Want to know how to move politically forward while going backward? Ask the Parti Québécois.

The PQ managed that unlikely feat this week. It got a smaller share of the popular vote than in two elections it lost in the past decade, yet still managed to win a minority.

Last week, the PQ took 32 per cent of the popular vote. It won 35 per cent in 2008, 28 per cent in 2007 and 33 per cent in 2003. So the PQ had one of its worst finishes in the popular vote in a decade, yet moved from opposition to government.

This “triumph” had nothing to do with the PQ’s becoming more popular, let alone sweeping Quebec, and even less pretending that its secessionist option was going anywhere. Rather, the “triumph” had everything to do with Jean Charest’s Liberals losing roughly one in four of the votes it had won in the last election. When a party drops about a quarter of its share of the popular vote – 42 per cent in 2008 to 31 per cent this week – it chances of being re-elected are slim.

The big Liberal decline (although not as big a decline as pollsters had predicted) obviously did nothing for the PQ, because its share of the popular vote fell, too. In this sense, a certain number of Quebeckers were casting a plague on the houses of both the traditional parties and, instead, turning to two new parties: the Coalition Avenir Québec (27 per cent) and, to a much lesser extent, the hard-line left-wing Québec Solidaire (6 per cent).

The CAQ is new; its historical roots are older. For a long time in Quebec, there has been a group of voters who are neither Liberal nor Péquiste. They’re hard to define, but they tend to be nationalist but not instinctively secessionist, more rural than urban, anti-elitist, populist. If you go back through postwar decades, think of the remnants of the Union Nationale that held on after the PQ’s arrival, the Ralliement des Crédististes (Social Credit) under Réal Caouette in the 1970s, the Action Démocratique du Québec under Mario Dumont, and now the successor party, the CAQ.

They were the kind of voters Stephen Harper’s Conservatives courted as part of their early Quebec strategy. It met with some early success. Most of them have now drifted away from the Conservatives in disillusionment, many heading across the spectrum to the NDP, which portrays itself as anti-establishment, populist and nationalist – just the right formula for these voters for whom ideology means next to nothing.

It was this group, very loosely defined, that could make referendum results close. They wouldn’t likely vote Yes on a clear question. But their nationalism could be kindled such that they might might vote Yes, under certain conditions, with the right secessionist leader (René Lévesque or Lucien Bouchard), a certain set of grievances on the boil and skillfully exploited, and a vague sort of question.

The PQ, to date, has marginal appeal for these voters – which is why so many voted for the new anti-establishment party, the CAQ. And they have nothing at all in common with Québec Solidaire. If one of the two large parties is to regain supremacy in Quebec, these voters will have to desert the CAQ, just as they eventually gave up on the Union Nationale, Créditistes and ADQ. But we’re a long way from anything like that happening, because the CAQ is new and hasn’t demonstrated much outside electioneering.

The PQ, with such a weak mandate, has no choice but to delay a referendum and fudge almost everything about it. Instead, it intends to provoke federal-provincial conflicts, drawing up a list of demands around which it hopes other parties and the electorate will rally to make Canada look bad, Mr. Harper intransigent and Quebec once again humiliated.

The PQ has convinced itself that this is a no-lose strategy. It could backfire. Quebeckers have often seen variations on this play, and understand that it provides theatrics. But it’s more a game than serious business.


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