By Paul W. Rowe
Now that the writ has dropped and the Quebec provincial election has begun, Quebeckers are trying to find the political party that is the best fit for them. It is a crowded field but most analysts feel there are three principal players: the ruling Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ); the self-styled government-in-waiting Parti Quebecois; and the newly formed right-leaning Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ). Also on the ballot will be the sovereignty-focused PQ offshoot Option Nationale (ON), the sovereigntist left-wing Quebec Solidaire (QS), a provincial Green Party, and the very recently formed Quebec Citizens’ Union (UCQ) claiming a progressive, federalist position.
After reading this long list of parties on the ballot – and there may even be a few more – one might think that Quebec voters from across the political spectrum and of every opinion on Quebec sovereignty are well represented. My contention, however, is that there is still a political gap to fill.
Despite the large number of political parties covering the various combinations of sovereignty/federalism positions and left-wing/right-wing positions, it is unclear what competitive and realistic electoral options a federalist, left-leaning Quebecker has. CAQ leader François Legault says that his party will impose a moratorium on the sovereignty issue for the next decade but Premier Jean Charest warns that as an ex-PQ minister, Mr. Legault cannot be trusted on this claim (whether true or not, the CAQ is not running as a left-of-centre party anyways). Progressive and left-leaning Quebec voters have likely never felt comfortable with the PLQ as a voting option but especially so in light of recent events, regardless of Mr. Charest’s claims that the PLQ is the sole federalist option in this election.
The Quebec Liberals are confident, and perhaps rightly so, that for voters who view federalism as the issue of importance, it is the only choice. The PQ, QS, and ON are all to the left of centre (to varying degrees) but all have aspirations of statehood for Quebec. Green parties across Canada have largely failed to gain the momentum necessary to be any sort of electoral threat. The federalist UCQ is in its infancy as a party and is so far running fewer than two dozen candidates across the province. Not to take anything away from the party’s chances or policies but since the UCQ was started by a 21-year old ex-PLQ member in mid-July, it would be fair to say that it remains to be seen what impact this party will have and what will become of it.
So where is a left-wing federalist Quebecker looking to change the government supposed to go?
This electoral lacuna has become especially evident since the dramatic surge of the NDP in Quebec in the last federal election. With no provincial NDP wing in the province, the media has begun to speculate who NDP supporters of the last federal election will vote for provincially. An even more tantalizing topic to the media (and Conservative muckrakers) has been the voting history of new Quebec NDP MPs. Several have been ‘caught’ offering support to the left-leaning sovereigntist parties (be it through financial donations, campaign work, or votes).
Conservatives have gleefully accused the NDP (again) of being in cahoots with separatists. This historical lack of a progressive federalist electoral option in Quebec should afford these ‘separatist’ NDP MPs some political slack. Mr. Charest is the ex-leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives and is characterized as being on the right-wing of the PLQ. (It is also worth noting that having voted for a party does not mean that one agrees with every single policy of said party.
Sovereignty, if it ever comes to pass, will be decided by a referendum, not by voting for the Parti Quebecois, Quebec Solidaire, etc.. In light of the fatigue and alleged corruption of the PLQ, one cannot blame Quebec supporters of federalism for looking somewhere else. This argument is not an endorsement of any party, only a means of highlighting the vacuum on the left side of the political spectrum for progressive federalists in Quebec.
As a people, Quebeckers are rarely accused of being politically apathetic. A passion for politics and for being involved in the building of their society has always been evident in Quebec. Those who follow politics in the rest of Canada may not always agree with what happens inside Quebec but often look upon the political enthusiasm of the Quebec people with envy. Since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, Quebec has been continuously reinventing itself politically on both the provincial and federal stages. The ‘vague orange’ (or orange wave) of the 2011 federal election was only the most recent incarnation. Since the 1960s Quebeckers have never shied away from creating new political movements and parties.
In light of this history, it is curious that until recently no one has seemingly even attempted to fill this space. The recent student movement, for instance, has provided no shortage of political fervour and its leaders have promised to focus that energy into getting out the student vote, obviously against Mr. Charest’s Liberals. Some from the student movement are already aligning themselves with various parties. Union members in Quebec have been facing the same difficulties as their ‘rest-of-Canada’ counterparts in dealing with corporations and the federal government’s treatment regarding labour issues. Traditionally, many unions have supported the PQ but the PQ is not without its own political baggage. Some union members may feel the need for a party focused not on sovereignty but on the creation of a healthy society where Quebec labour issues are understood and respected. It is too early to tell if the UCQ will be the vehicle for a progressive Quebec not focused and divided on the sovereignty issue or if another stronger party will emerge to fill that void.
Of course it is the decision of Quebeckers to vote for whichever party they choose. Many progressives outside Quebec were happy to welcome the province to the progressive, federalist fold of the NDP. It is now conceivable a similar feat could be repeated within Quebec. Many outside Quebec have felt a kindred spirit with the socially progressive Quebec population. It would not necessarily need to occur under the banner of a provincial New Democratic Party as good policies, strong democracy, and a healthy society are goals all political parties are encouraged to seek. As with many things, Quebeckers will find their own unique way of achieving such goals.
In spite of the already crowded ballot list and the myriad of electoral options that Quebec voters have this provincial election cycle, I would argue that there is still room for one more.