In case you hadn’t noticed, Quebec is having an election. Called on March 5, it will be held on April 7.
An election — not Apocalypse Tomorrow.
It is not as if Quebec has been short of provincial elections pitting Liberal Party federalists against Parti Quebecois sovereignists with ancillary third parties to spice up the competition.
Nor is it unusual for the PQ to enter the campaign as a heavy favorite, like the Parizeau-Landry 1994 PQ team and the 1998 Bouchard-led PQ incumbent government. Indeed, Parizeau promised to hold a referendum on Quebec sovereignty within a year of a PQ victory, and many observers anticipated a Bouchard victory would lead inevitably to a repeat of the 1995 referendum. Even the 2012 election predicted a PQ victory when viewing the nine-year Liberal government on its “10th life” (with the intimation that a Marois government would seek the proverbial “winning conditions” for a referendum).
But the level of frenzy in the current electoral campaign appears wildly disproportionate to the on-the-ground realities. Let us look at some of them.
The PQ may not win the election. Indeed, we have had a series of recent provincial elections in which “sure winners” didn’t. Recall how the B.C. NDP snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the 2013 election. And how the “dead man walking” Ontario Liberals were again victorious (albeit with a minority) in 2011. And the Alberta Tories, supposedly in “deep doo” facing the surging Wildrose insurgency in 2012, cruised to a majority government. Or on the federal level, what happened to the ever-victorious Bloc Quebecois in May 2011? And even the 2012 PQ victory ended in a skin-of-your-teeth minority government, not the easy victory Marois anticipated. Frankly, the professional pollsters, after an era when their analyses were exceptionally accurate, are now struggling to explain why their formulae have failed and wondering whether they should return to reading animal entrails for predictions instead of pondering statistical parameters.
Consequently, it is noteworthy the clear PQ majority polled when the campaign opened has now tightened into an even race.
The Peladeau phenomenon is a double-edged sword. The emergence of media mogul Pierre Karl Peladeau (instantly transformed into “PKP”) has tossed a fox into the hen house — with commensurate squawking. Frankly, however, billionaires don’t take direction well. And billionaires who own massive media corporations are even less amenable to guidance. They assume those around them are acolytes and/or employees; frogs awaiting the word “Jump!” with a “How high?” response. They are bulls carrying their own china shops, and their intelligence/economic-fiscal skills don’t translate well into politics. Think Conrad Black (whose lawyers dared not have him testify at his own trial) or Donald Trump who provided some ("You’re fired!") unintended humor during the 2012 Republican primary campaign. Moreover, even serious figures, like Steve Forbes, Republican presidential aspirant in 1996 and 2000, got nowhere when promoting a “flat tax” on income.
For his part, PKP instantly declared that he wants a sovereign Quebec and won’t surrender control of his media empire if elected. Although he was quickly spun by PQ handlers into more appropriate traditional positions, he remains a sputtering bomb from which more explosions are predictable. He may not be in corporate takeover mode for the PQ, but accommodating his objectives will be a serious challenge.
Consequently, the campaign elements which Marois sought to emphasize — the Francophone-popular Quebec Charter of Values and (perceived) economic progress are being subsumed. PQ opponents are attempting to transform the election into a pre-referendum battle contending it is the lead item on Marois’ hidden agenda. This is a politically adroit tactic as current interest in independence let alone another referendum is not obvious.
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Thus Anglophone-driven semi-hysteria over the return of the “neverendum referendum”
has become the featured campaign theme. It is complemented by burn-bridges-before-crossing-them rhetoric suggesting that Montreal would be divisible if a referendum endorsed Quebec separation.
But the tactic may be self-defeating. The key to victory remains Francophones and among them, the PQ retains a substantial lead. Designed to institutionalize their cultural/social dominance, the Values Charter is popular among Francophones (and Anglophones/Allophones won’t support the PQ in any event). Indeed, the referendum excitement (downplayed by Marois) may even seduce the separatist spinoff parties to return to the PQ.
But even should the PQ prevail, there is a long trail between an electoral victory and a referendum — let alone separation.
We should remember the remark attributed to PQ leader Rene Levesque after his 1976 victory, “Okay, everybody take a Valium.”
David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as advisor for two Army Chiefs of Staff. He has just published Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.