Around 73 percent of the 6 million registered voters cast their ballot in this week’s election which saw power change hands from the Liberal Party, giving up its control of the Assembly after nine years. Replacing it is the separatist Parti Quebecois, which has favored an independent Quebec since the party’s formation in 1968. However, despite its newfound power, the marginal victory achieved by the PQ, and its subsequent failure to gain a majority in the Assembly, indicates that a referendum for independence is not in the cards for the near future.
Stepping down from leadership is Jean Charest who has served as premier for three consecutive terms. Some have questioned why he called the election more than a year earlier than required (a characteristic of parliamentary governments). Opinion polls have favored the PQ for some time as the Liberal Party has struggled to improve the economy, control violent protests over student tuition rates and battle accusations of corruption. Charest mistakenly felt confident that a “silent majority” of Quebecers would come out to re-elect him. Instead, not only did his party lose control of the Assembly, but Charest lost his own seat.
Quebec’s new leader and the first female premier ever, Pauline Marois, vowed in her victory speech to move toward an independent Quebec. However, if the PQ won the election based on the assumption that the people want independence from Canada, the figures don’t show it. A recent poll conducted by Montreal-based firm CROP indicated that only 28 percent of Quebecers favor separation. To stage a referendum in these conditions would surely hurt the separatist movement, as a failed vote would force the issue to the back burner for a number of years further. Such was the case with the two previous referenda for Quebec’s independence, conducted in 1980 and 1995, where the latter failed by a mere 1 percent of the vote.
The desire to remain part of Canada has been buoyed in the past by a growing number of immigrants, particularly in Montreal where a large proportion of the people speak English as a first language. Such support has also been strong near the Ottawa border where Canada’s federal government resides. Since these areas are highly populated by comparison to Quebec’s sparsely inhabited other regions, independence has been, and will continue to be, somewhat of a pipe dream for many in the predominantly French-speaking province.
So attention now turns to the PQ, which has had to form a minority government after falling eight seats short of the 63 required for a majority in the Assembly. Without the promise of an imminent referendum to gain early public support, the PQ will have to tackle Quebec’s economic problems, seen by many as the biggest issue within the province. It is currently sitting on $186 billion of debt, providing no small challenge for the new government. Successful handling of the weak economy will be paramount if the PQ hopes to gain a second term in power. The Liberal Party, which won only six seats fewer than the PQ, will be looking to mount a comeback after this defeat, while the relatively new party Coalition Avenir Quebec is gaining in popularity and won 19 seats in Tuesday’s election.
The Parti Quebecois, at risk of holding power for a single term due to its narrow agenda focusing primarily on independence, may be forced to play its hand too early. The threat of losing control of the Assembly in a few years means there is little time to waste in moving toward an independence referendum. Yet with current figures indicating that separation is not favored by a majority of Quebecers, it could be a fatal blow to the party’s hopes.
The presumed failed referendum would be unlikely to return to the agenda for perhaps another decade. Ultimately then, the PQ must make substantial progress in fixing the economy and solidifying its position at the top, thereby winning further terms in power, if it has any hope of holding its much-desired vote for an independent Quebec when the time is right.