|Quebec's Political Woes
The Canada eZine - Quebec
Minority for Quebec Liberals
ADQ leader the kingmaker as Quebec vote produces seismic political shift
SHERBROOKE, QUE.–Quebec Premier Jean Charest escaped with a bare minority government in an election that has given populist right-of-centre Action démocratique du Québec Leader Mario Dumont the whip hand and dealt a historic rebuke to the sovereignist Parti Québécois.
Dumont, 36, whose party held only five seats before the election, rode a wave of voter discontent that built in eastern Quebec before roaring through Quebec City, and the St. Lawrence valley before finally cresting and lapping up in the northern and southern suburbs that ring Montreal.
The result is a seismic shift in Quebec politics and a blow to the sovereignty movement, which posted its lowest vote total in 37 years.
A wan-looking Charest entered to cheers from a crowd of about 200 placard-waving Liberal supporters.
"Quebecers have spoken, we accept their decision ... "Quebecers decided today to write a new page of history and to issue a challenge to the political class," Charest said.
"Well, I accept this challenge. And I say to all Quebecers, we will be worthy of their confidence.
"Throughout this campaign we lived through the attacks of our adversaries, we had a record that had some difficult problems, a record of remedying our institutions.
"Today, Quebecers rendered a judgment, we must recognize that it was a severe judgment ... we must draw our lessons and we will accept their will.
"Our government will work with all the parties of the National Assembly ... to give Quebec a stable parliament that will defend the interests of all Quebecers," he said.
Last night, Dumont hailed his party's breakthrough. Quebecers from all regions had sent "a strong political message, a message of change," he told cheering supporters.
Liberals were confidently predicting a majority government as supporters began arriving for an election night rally in downtown Sherbrooke.
But smiles were quickly replaced by expressions of dismay and disbelief as the voting results poured in. Party staffers looked on in consternation as cabinet ministers and longtime members of the National Assembly were defeated and the ADQ continued to climb.
It looked for much of the evening like Charest would lose his own seat – the last premier to win an election and fall short in his home riding was Bourassa in 1985 – but he ultimately won by more than 1,000 votes.
Though the election casts the future of the PQ and of party leader André Boisclair into doubt, it also heralds a new era in the National Assembly, which hasn't seen a minority government since 1878.
It also divides the province into distinct regions: the Liberals are largely concentrated in western and central Montreal, the Eastern Townships, Outaouais and a handful of eastern ridings.
The PQ is the party of east-end Montreal, the Montérégie region south of the city, and outlying areas in the north and east of the province.
The ADQ, meanwhile, now has a stranglehold on central Quebec, the Quebec City region, and eastern hinterland.
Boisclair, 40, was the first leader to give his concession speech, emerging teary-eyed in a Montreal rock club before a boisterous crowd.
He held his hand over his heart in acknowledgement, and said "only a few seats separated us from power tonight, only a few votes."
He said the inner workings of the new National Assembly will be "original and unprecedented," and despite public admonishments from senior PQ figures who warned the party will have to rebuild, said "we will see each other again soon."
"I saw a lot of flames light up during this campaign, tonight the flame has not been extinguished, even if it burns less brightly than we would have hoped ... our movement is anchored in the population, we are millions of Quebecers that want to make our people a country," Boisclair said.
The poor showing by the Parti Québécois paired with the stunning gains made by the right-wing ADQ offered a handful of potential benefits to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who now has more ideological allies than ever in Quebec.
"This is good news for Mr. Harper," said Desmond Morton, a political scientist at McGill University.
Charest warned in the closing days of the campaign that a minority government would "weaken" Quebec irreparably in its dealings with the rest of Canada and hobble its capacity to protect its culture and identity.
When the Quebec National Assembly was dissolved on Feb. 21 for the election campaign, the Liberals held 72 of the National Assembly's 125 seats. The Parti Québécois held 45 seats and Action démocratique had 5. There was one independent MNA and there were two vacancies.
The unexpected ADQ wave allowed Dumont to shoot from that five-seat rump to the Official Opposition leader's office.
Star ADQ candidate Gilles Taillon, who trounced his Liberal opponent in the Quebec City area, said the result was "beyond our wildest dreams."
Though Liberal party president Marc-André Blanchard insisted that Charest "exceeded expectations," the critics didn't wait long before picking apart the Liberal leader's lackadaisical campaign.
John Parisella, a political consultant who advised former Liberal premier Robert Bourassa, told CTV news that Charest's campaign "lacked focus" and that "he spent too much time playing defence."
Quebec Liberals in squeaker
Premier holds onto his own seat
MONTREAL — Quebecers set aside the dream of independence Monday in a once-in-a-century election that pushed the province to the right after promises of private health care and a tougher approach to minorities.
While the Liberals won a slim minority, it was the Action democratique du Quebec’s liftoff on a wave of populist anger that turned Quebec’s legislature rightward.
Canadians will get a referendum reprieve but the upheaval facing Jean Charest’s government means nothing is certain a year or two down the road.
“Today Quebecers delivered a judgment, a severe one, and the Liberal party and I will have to learn lessons from it,” Charest told his supporters in Sherbrooke, Que.
“This new assembly will test our political maturity and sense of duty. Quebecers decided to write a page of history tonight and put their politicians to the test. I accept this challenge.”
With the 125 ridings settled, the Liberals had 48 seats, the ADQ 41 and the PQ 36, giving Quebec its first minority government since the 1870s.
The race for the popular vote was just as tight with the Liberals at 33 per cent, the ADQ at 31 per cent and the PQ at 28 per cent.
Mario Dumont’s ADQ surged to second place in one of the biggest surprises in modern Quebec politics after he repeatedly told voters in the campaign he wanted the province to be more autonomous within Canada.
Dumont walked a fine constitutional line and was able to attract support from disenchanted federalists and sovereigntists alike.
The ADQ leader also struck a vein of discontent when he said the province should stop bending over backwards to accommodate minorities.
The party’s strong performance pushed the separatist Parti Quebecois into third place
“This is a cry from the heart from the people that we heard tonight,” Dumont told supporters at his campaign rally in Riviere-du-Loup.
“Quebec is entering the 21st century in terms of politics. This is a victory for all middle-class Quebecers.
“We now have a rendez-vous for the next step.”
That next step may include Dumont’s promise to fight for autonomy — a position that was mocked as weak and unrealistic by federalists and separatists alike.
Dumont said autonomy will allow Quebec to assert itself without separating.
“Our autonomist path is the modern response to what we have become in 2007,” Dumont said.
“The autonomist path is above all faithfulness to Quebec.”
In Montreal, PQ supporters chanted “We want a country, we want a country” as crestfallen Leader Andre Boisclair climbed on stage at party headquarters, pointing out the party didn’t miss by much.
“Just a few seats separate us from power, a couple of thousand votes,” Boisclair told the cheering crowd.
“Tonight it is democracy that has spoken.”
Boisclair said the sovereigntist fire was a bit subdued Monday night.
“These flames haven’t been extinguished tonight, but they aren’t burning as brightly,” he said.
The result left the PQ and the sovereignty movement facing major questions. Under Boisclair, the party fell to its lowest level of popular support in decades and its smallest number of seats since 1989.
The PQ’s failure to win a majority means there will be no referendum — at least until the Liberal government falls and another election is held.
The Liberals will count on the ADQ opposition for support in leading the province in Quebec’s first minority government since 1878.
Despite Charest’s win, Quebecers gave a thumbs-down to four years of Liberal majority rule. Charest was the first premier to fail to win a second majority mandate in 40 years but was elected in his Sherbrooke riding after trailing much of the evening.
Charest noted the deep division in Quebec society in his sombre victory speech.
“Tonight you have to say with the vote split that Quebec is also divided,” Charest said.
“It’s up to the elected members of the Quebec people to restore the unity of our citizens.”
Dumont’s party entered the campaign with five seats but surpassed even its wildest expectations.
With both the Liberals and PQ at their lowest levels of support in decades, both Boisclair and Charest were expected to face questions about their leadership.
Dumont will only face questions about the strength of his newly elected members of the legislature, most of whom are completely unknown with little or no political experience.
Overwhelmed ADQ supporters stood in disbelief and waved signs saying, “It’s time for action” as results poured in to Dumont’s headquarters in Riviere-du-Loup.
They chanted “Mario, Mario.”
“It was the ADQ that stimulated the election’s issues, and set the tone of the campaign,” Gregoire Blais, a party organizer, said amid the cheers and chants.
“Without the ADQ, it would have been a boring campaign.”
Stunned and sombre Liberal faithful gathered in Charest’s Sherbrooke riding.
“It’s surprising,” said Huguette Levesque at Liberal headquarters at a hotel convention centre.
“But... there are people who were unsatisfied and they wanted something new.”
Dumont made unexpected gains in several areas of the province, taking Liberal and PQ seats and several surprise seats in Montreal suburbs.
Instead of being stuck in the 40-year-old debate over Quebec’s national destiny, Dumont found middle ground with his vague stand for Quebec autonomy within Canada.
Even without the immediate threat of Quebec separation, the election has consequences for the rest of Canada. The vote could determine whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls a federal election this spring.
The election night disappointment for sovereigntists might convince Harper to call a federal election soon and go for more seats at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois.
The 33-day campaign began with Charest comfortably atop the polls but quickly turned into an exciting three-way race that left observers afraid to guess the outcome.
Dumont saw his support rise from the ashes during the campaign thanks in part to a conservative platform that earned him admirers in rural Quebec. His stance that Quebec does too much to accommodate its religious minorities played especially well outside of Montreal.
In the dying days of the election run, Harper tossed a Hail Mary pass to Charest in billions of dollars in transfers to Quebec. Charest immediately handed off a $700-million promise of income tax cuts, an offering that reminded voters of billions in tax reductions he failed to deliver in his last mandate.