Quebec stays put, for now

It looks like being a big year for secession movements, with Crimea leaving Ukraine under disputed circumstances (and the threat that other areas may follow), and votes on independence scheduled for September in Scotland and November in Catalonia. But we can now at least be reasonably confident that Quebec will not be joining them.

The last provincial election in Quebec, in September 2012, was almost a dead heat between the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ) and the anti-separatist Liberal Party. The PQ finished three-quarters of a percentage point ahead, and won 54 seats to the Liberals’ 50. The Coalition for Quebec’s Future (CAQ), a new party that was nationalist without being fully separatist, held the balance of power with 19 seats. (Adam Carr doesn’t seem to do provincial elections, so I’m using Wikipedia’s figures.)

The PQ formed a minority government, with its leader Pauline Marois becoming Quebec’s first female premier. But relying on CAQ for a majority was obviously an unsatisfactory experience, so last month, less than halfway into her term, Marois sought and was granted a dissolution for an early election, held yesterday.

The PQ remains committed to independence for Quebec, but the issue has been relatively quiet since a referendum was narrowly defeated in 1995. It came up during the election campaign, however, with the Liberals issuing “dire warnings … about the destruction of Canada and the debilitating damage Quebec would suffer.” Nor did Marois shy away from the issue, talking openly about the benefits of independence, although she stopped short of promising to hold another referendum.

But if yesterday’s vote was about independence, then Quebec’s view is clear: the PQ was bundled out of office, and the Liberals will form government with a clear majority of 70 out of 125 seats. The PQ lost 24 seats, Marois’s own seat among them. (Official results here.)

As is usual in a first-past-the-post system, the seat margin looks a lot more impressive than the vote margin. The Liberals only had 41.5% of the vote to the PQ’s 25.4%, but won well over twice as many seats. CAQ won 23.1% and 22 seats, gaining three seats even though it went backwards in votes. The left-wing Québec Solidaire was the only other party to trouble the scorers, with 7.6% and three seats.

So the Quebec electorate would appear to be still broadly nationalist in sentiment, if unenthusiastic about independence. But division among its opponents has allowed the Liberal Party to claim a decisive mandate (just as Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper did at the last federal election with just 39.6%).

The Quebec Liberal Party mustn’t be confused with the federal Liberal Party – although they have common origins, they are separate organisations with somewhat different orientations. Federally the Liberals occupy the centre to centre-left, but since the PQ is basically a centre-left party, the Quebec Liberals line up more as centre-right. But their big thing is defending Canadian unity.

In that cause, they can chalk up another win. Quebec nationalism probably won’t go away, but it looks like lying dormant for another few years.

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