Thursday, November 6, 2008

Quebec to Vote on December 8th

Quebec Premier Jean Charest is going to the polls early calling an election to take place on December 8th.

Charest, who at one time was the leader of Canada's Progressive Conservative Party, is going to try to do what Stephen Harper couldn't do in Ottawa - obtain a majority government.

In March 2007, Charest's Liberals were re-elected but with a minority government. It was the first time there had been a minority government in Quebec in more than 125 years. In that election the Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ) led by Mario Dumont became the official opposition. While the ADQ wants more autonomy for Quebec they are not a sepratist party and tend to be more conservative on economic issues. The sepratist Parti Quebecois fell to third and at less than 30% in the popular vote had its worst showing since its debut in 1970.

Since that the election the fortunes of both the Liberals and Parti Quebecois has improved while the ADQ has sunk in the polls. The Liberals have the lead in the polls and many believe the ADQ votes will go to the Liberals. However, a mixture of a volatile economy and a snap election nothing is guaranteed for Charest. It's one thing for Harper to go to the polls with a nearly three year old minority government it is another for Charest to go to the polls with a minority government that is not even two years old. O.K. it's a year but a year is infinity in politics. People might resent going to the polls. They will especially resent going to the polls if they have recently lost their job or house.

My concern is that if the economic news gets worse over the next month in Quebec the chief beneficiary will be the Parti Quebecois now led by Pauline Marois. While not known for her charisma she was considered a competent cabinet minister in the PQ governments of Rene Levesque Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry. Marois served as Quebec's Minister of Finance in the last PQ government under Landry.

A snap election, bad economic news, a gaffe or two could result in a PQ victory. A PQ victory means another Quebec referendum. Granted the rules under which a referendum can be conducted have changed as a result of the efforts of the soon to be former federal Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion. Nonetheless, as long as the PQ gets elected there will be a point in their mandate where a referendum would take place asking the Quebecois whether they wish leave Canada and become an independent country. This will be a permanent feature of Quebec politics until there is a yes vote to secede.

The previous two referendums were held in 1980 and 1995. The Quebecois rejected the 1980 referendum giving the No forces a 60-40 margin. In 1995, the Yes forces came within 0.5% of winning and destroying Canada. If Marois and the PQ are elected in December I would expect a referendum in 2010. I can't emphasize this enough. There will be probably a referendum in Quebec every 15 years or so until the Quebecois say yes. Of course, it isn't that cut and dry. There would have to be negotiations with the Government of Canada on the terms of secession. This is why calling an early election in Quebec is risky for Charest. Yes, Charest and the Liberals are leading in the polls but as I have set out here calling a snap election in Quebec can have far steeper consequences than in other jurisdictions.

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