Thursday, August 02, 2012

Quebec Election: What to Watch For


Let the speculation begin! Quebec goes to the polls in one of the more interesting … actually, just about all Quebec elections of late have been interesting. I normally refrain from making electoral predictions because: (1) I don't like turning politics into a spectator sport. It deserves better. And (2) I am not very good at it. I have number cruncher friends who are and I rely on them. Instead, I usually try to comment on elections in a way that isolates (I hope) the more important issues that might be missed by the mainstream media in their sports-like coverage. For instance, instead of talking about whether the Conservatives have increased or decreased their support since the last poll, I try to look the shifting dynamics of Canada and what this entails in terms of Canada's political, economic, etc., future.

It is amazingly difficult to do this for Quebec because the Quebec political spectrum is both so fractured and so … well … homogeneous. Whoever win the election will have to deal with limited budgetary resources, for instance, that will circumscribe policy choices. Moreover, as Charest has seen, the high level of leftist activism in Quebec makes it difficult for any political party that wants to govern for very long to move very far from the centre of the spectrum. The QLP might look like a right wing party in Quebec but their history says otherwise and they look pretty centrist if you plunked them down in Ontario, BC, or Alberta.

Even with these limits, however, Quebecers have a bit of a choice on their hands whereby they can elect for the status quo Liberals (centrist, machine-style politics); centre-left separatism in the form of the PQ, which almost fell apart a year ago owing to leadership problems and lack of collective vision (at least according to those who left the party) and neo, neo right CAQ, a jazzier version of the ADQ. In other words, Quebecers have choices. I don't, btw, disagree with some PQ policies. If I were in power, I'd keep taxes higher to ensure lower tuition. Agreeing or disagreeing with the policies is not the point: it is that Quebecers do have choices and it will be interesting to see which Quebecers make which choices.

And, this is my first, point. Those outside Quebec often treat Quebec as some sort of monolithic entity. It ain't. The electoral divisions -- including what looks like a real socialist party to me in Quebec Solidaire -- are important. Quebecers don't all vote the same way and the divisions just aren't anglo v franco. It will be interesting to see who demographically, for instance, supports the CAQ. Will the PQ base contract or expand; who are they losing and who are they gaining, etc. This election might continue the interrupted -- by the collapse of the ADQ -- movement in Quebec to a multiparty system with defined core bases and ideological proclavities.

My second point is a bit speculative but it will also be interesting to see who can cooperate with whom. The Liberals are coming off a majority government but they worked with a minority before that. It was not a long government. Charest rightly gambled that support for the right-wing ADQ was artificially high and that their supporters could be poached because they were not committed to that ideological perspective. This time, poaching might be harder. The right appears better organized in Quebec then it has been since the days of the Union nationale. I don't think they think they are going to win. My guess is that they have some number of seats in mind that they want to walk away with, ensuring a minority government and ensuring that they have some sway in that government.

Let's assume that the PQ and LIberals cannot cooperate with each other. Who is the natural partner for the CAQ? The CAQ says that they view the independence issue as a waste of time and money; economically, their policies are closer to the Liberals. Would they be willing to work with the Liberals, to keep a Liberal government -- one that might be … well … corrupt -- in power? Would they negotiate their support on a case by case basis? Would the fact that the PQ -- if a minority government -- could not get an independence referendum law through the National Assembly without them mean that they would be willing to work with the PQ (because they would know that the independence option was, as they want, put on hold).

Finally, it will be interesting to see  how accurate the polls are. As the recent Alberta election demonstrated, the pollsters are pretty far from infallible. There was, to be sure, a lot of hand wringing among pundits and pollsters after the Alberta election and a lot of "well, we were right except for X and Y and Z" type of discourse. In Quebec, polls have traditionally under-estimated federalist support. One prediction I will make is that I don't think that will be the case this time. The situation in Alberta was a failure of method, a failure on the part of those discussing the election to ask the right questions.  I don't expect anyone to ask the right questions in Quebec either but I think that we will get a more accurate read because of the CAQ.

Why? My theory is that polls under-estimate federalist support in Quebec for one of two reasons: sample failures (too many respondents from rural Quebec) or because there was a reticent on the part some Quebecers to support the PQ because of its stand on separatism. So, what you had were people who did not want to vote Libreral and might even have disagreed with the things that Liberals stood for but voted Liberal out of fear of the PQ. So, when polled, these people (not liking the Liberals) said they were going to vote against them which meant voting PQ. But, when push came to shove, they decided that federalism was very important to them and held their nose and voted Liberal.  With CAQ in the field, they don't have to do this and I think they will know that. Hence, more accuracy.

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