Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Quebec: has the sovereignty movement hit the buffers?

The dust has hardly settled on the Quebec elections and commentators in Canada and Scotland are already pronouncing the Quebecois dream of an independent francophone nation in North America well and truly dead.

Here is Scotland it is largely overjoyed Better Together supporters drawing lazy comparisons in order the provide cheap ammunition in their war against the momentum of the Yes campaign. In anglophone Canada the PQ defeat has been widely welcomed as a vote for the 'status quo' and federal Canada. The triumphalism in most Toronto based press is palpable and just a little overblown.

In Quebec the story is, in reality, just a little more complicated. True the main sovereignty party the Parti Quebecois (PQ) have been unceremoniously ditched by the electorate and replaced by a Liberal Party which itself was rejected just 18 short months ago following a series of funding and corruption scandals that are subject to an ongoing public inquiry  Astonishing really that a party whose links with allegations of corruption of its politicians and government officials could be forgiven so quickly.

When PQ leader Pauline Marois dissolved the National Assembly she was in a strong position - ahead in the polls and widely tipped to win the majority she was seeking to enact her program. It was the blocking of the PQ agenda by the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) which convinced Marois that with the polls on her side she should call a snap election.

There's a back story that's been missed by most of the commentators so far and that is the the sovereignty movement has been fractured for the past few years. When the PQ were in opposition before 2012 there were two splits that lead to breakaway parties. One was Francois Legault a former PQ front bencher who left and formed CAQ. His new party is soft on the sovereignty issue and must be pleased to see their share of seats move up in the outcome of the elections. The other splinter was Jean-Martin Aussant another former PQ front bencher who set up the small but energetic Option Nationale (ON) to ply a more strongly sovereigntist line. Aussant was an MNA (Member of the National Assembly) when he resigned from the PQ and set up ON but lost his seat in 2012 and stood down as leader in 2013. ON under the leadership of Sol Zanetti pushed a strong line this time round using the slogan 'Reveiller du courage!' and 'Independence'. Their most creditable performance this time was in Taschereau a tight PQ/Liberal marginal where Catherine Dorion resisted the squeeze on votes. There is also the left party Quebec Solidaire (QS) who seemed to play down the sovereignty message this time in favour of social justice - it paid off as the they held their previous two seats and added a third. It is also worth noting the the PQ, ON and QS all gained from the 'Maple Spring' student unrest in Quebec in 2011/12.

So what of 2014? Well the PQ had to some extent weathered the controversy around the 'Charter of Values' which sought to proscribe public servants wearing religious symbols (an issue not uncommon to several European countries) but what appears to blown the election seems to be what PQ thought would be their game changer (in a good way) - the recruiting of Quebecor media mogul Pierre Karl Peladeau to run as a candidate. When he made a televised speech in his riding saying effectively Quebec should be independent the comments were pounced on by the media (the anglophone media in particular), and the opposition. The question of a new referendum then became the focus of the election and this was immediately reflected in the polls. What at the outset looked like bold leadership in calling an election when PQ were ahead in the polls quickly turned into a political and personal disaster for Marois with her party losing seats hers included and the Liberals gaining a solid majority.

The problem on the issue of sovereignty was the lack of clarity of what the PQ plans were. It may be true that large sections of the Quebec electorate are happy enough for the PQ to rule Quebec but are less ready to embrace another referendum. Marois and the PQ failed to work out their strategy on the issue in a way that could have convinced the electorate enough to trust them with another period in government. Unlike the SNP the PQ found minority government difficult, failing to achieve support for their policies and therefore unlike the SNP failed to provide the electorate the confidence in their competence in government that in Scotland allowed the SNP to build a wide enough base to achieve a majority. The other advantage that the SNP has had is its clear stance on the referendum issue - indeed the the promise of a referendum actually seemed to diffuse the independence issue in Scottish politics as the issue itself would not be decided in one election but some time after and the voters would have that choice. Lack of clarity on the referendum process and even if there would be a referendum created enough uncertainty that when the focus turned to that the wheels came of the PQ campaign bus.

Where does that leave the PQ and the sovereignty issue? Becalmed but not over would be my prediction. PQ will regroup and choose a new leader. They will draw breath and consider their platform carefully for future elections. They still have a solid group of 30 in the National Assembly as the official opposition. The other parties will reflect too - ON has already stated they will focus on developing their Independence platform. The sovereignty dream may have led to a rude awakening but the wake up call may be just what the sovereignty movement needs to find focus.