Thursday, August 30, 2012

Separatists Poised for Québec Election Victory: An Analysis for Confused Americans

  [This article analyzes the 2012 elections; for a blogpost on the 2014 elections, see 2014 Québec instead] In the midst of unparalleled student unrest, a university system that literally shut down for half a year, and a government embroiled in construction-contract scandals, Québec Premier Jean Charest and the Liberal Party appear headed for a major defeat in provincial elections less than a week from today.
The likely victors will be the Parti Québécois and their passionate leader, Pauline Marois.  It will be the first chance that the Franco-centric separatists will have to flex its muscle since it lost an independence plebiscite by a mere 1% margin in 1995.  Whether the Parti Québecois will win a majority of seats in the largely three-way race on September 4th remains to be seen.
The Canadian political landscape – and the Québécois landscape in particular – rests on different paradigms than the more ideological, American race which has dominated the media from Tampa all week.
Three parties are vying for control of the province – none of which are parties that have any significant role on the national level…but the politics of Canadian nationalism (or ‘federalism’) loom large over this race.
The current government of Québec is dominated by the Liberal Party, a political party that lost all significance on the federal level just a few years ago.  The Liberals dominated the national Canadian government under Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien for forty years from the 1960s to the early 2000s; the party was then decimated on the national level, reduced to a mere footnote, winning only 35 of 308 seats in the House of Commons.   
 But in Québec, the Liberals, under Premier Jean Charest,  have managed to hold on to power – until now.
Earlier this year, the Charest government recommended raising university tuition by $1600/year, setting off the largest protests in Canadian history throughout the summer.  Charest responded to the protests by enacting Bill 78, a bill that severely limited the right to protest and included  “pre-notification” requirements.  Initially, the majority of Québec citizens appeared to support the government as against the students, but the enactment of Bill 78 turned much popular sentiment against Charest’s Liberals.  The Liberals were compared to the national Conservative Party (the Canadian version of the Republican Party in the United States, which hardly exists at all in Québec.) The Conservatives are grossly unpopular in Québec. Conservative Canadian Premier Stephen Harper inflamed French Québec this year by openly embracing the British monarchy.  Harper's conservative, pro-British government in Ottawa created a leftist, French backlash in Québec, and Charest's Liberals have lost support because of it. (In the US, Liberals and Conservatives would never be seen as 'allies;' in Canada, that is not the case.)
 If these troubles were not enough for Charest, a long-term investigation of a bribery scandal involving his cabinet members and the construction industry began to hit media outlets during the student protests, further souring even his own traditional supporters.
The Liberal Party’s troubles and a strengthened sense of French culture in Québec have catapulted the Parti Québécois (or PQ) to first place in all pre-election polls.  Lead by Pauline Marois, the party is neither left nor right, as much as it is “French.”  The party has embraced and exalts Québec’s unique French heritage, and, as such, appears leftist (even socialist) on economic issues, while holding to a very conservative line on social issues of a “French” nature.
The PQ  has openly supported the students in their strike, embracing the very French notion of a low-cost, or even tuition-free, university education for all citizens.  It has taken a harsh approach towards miners, announcing it will demand higher royalty payments; some have suggested that the PQ will shut down Québec asbestos industry altogether.  But while liberal on social issues, the PQ insists on a conservative approach towards “French” issues: the PQ wants to tighten language laws to require greater use of French in business and government operations, and stronger laws preventing the purchase of Québec companies by foreign corporations. 

 The PQ recently called for laws outlawing the wearing of muslim head scarves as well as religious symbols such as crosses in government office buildings, similar to the militantly-secular culture found in France.
Ironically, it is in the city of Montréal where the greatest political discordance is found: Montréal is the center of the student protests, which the PQ has embraced; it is also the city with the greatest number of bilingual and non-French speaking people in Québec, who will be impactedthe most by the PQ’s stricter language proposals.

Enter the third party: The Coalition Avenir Québec, or “CAQ,” a new party headed by François Legault.  CAQ describes itself as right-of-center (and "pro-entrepreneur") on economic issues, but liberal on social issues. It attempts to stake out a ‘middle position’ on Québec independence, rejecting both the separatist platform of the PQ and the Federalist platform of the Liberals.  CAQ wants to ‘strengthen’ French language laws (especially in Montréal), and limit immigration, while promoting a French culture within the Canadian federation.  Though new, it is outpolling the Liberals on the eve of the election.
Will Montréal voters (and English speakers) continue to embrace the scandal-plagued, anti-dissent Liberals in order to protect their multilingual heritage?
Will French speakers (constituting 80% of Québec’s voters) join the bandwagon to replace the Liberals with a markedly French Parti Québecois?  
 Or with they choose just a “slightly-less-French” CAQ in the hopes of taking a ‘middle way,” even though the CAQ is an upstart, unknown entity?
Can any of the three parties win a majority of seats in the Québec Parliament?
Nous allons savoir mardi.


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