State of affairs
In addressing the results of the 2015 Scottish referendum, current Québec Liberal Party premier Philippe Couillard remarked that the idea of sovereignty “never dies.” However, since the 1995 referendum, both the federal and provincial sovereignist parties have endured a gradual and persistent decline in popular support.
The federal Bloc Québecois–who in January lost five of its ten MPs to the newly created “Quebec Debout”–is almost certain to experience fatal electoral losses in the 2019 federal election. The same can be said for Québec Debout, who draws from the same electorate as the Bloc despite have a softer rhetoric on separation. Popular support for sovereignty has been shrinking since 1995: only 35 per cent of Québecers support separation according to the latest polls.
Importantly, the provincial Parti Québecois (PQ) faces significant challenges in view of an approaching Québec general election on October 1. However, the PQ’s leader Jean-François Lisée has engaged in an audacious charm offensive to recreate the party’s traditional nationalist social-democratic coalition. Will it be enough to form a government in October?
Jean François Lisée, the strategist
Jean-François Lisée first made his entry into politics in 1994 as a strategist to Parti Québécois premier Jacques Parizeau. Lisée would then go on to advise Premier Lucien Bouchard, who would take over from Parizeau following the latter’s comments on “ethnic votes and money” in the aftermath of the 1995 referendum loss.
After resigning from this position in 1999 and going into academia in 2004, Lisée would finally take the leap into active politics in 2008, becoming the MNA for the Montreal riding of Rosemont. After a contentious leadership race in 2016, Lisée would run successfully as an underdog candidate beating the party-favourite candidate Alexandre Cloutier.
His main pitch: delay plans for a third referendum until a hypothetical second majority-government mandate in 2022. Lisée would also address topics that were seemingly discarded by the civic-nationalist Cloutier, including lowering immigration thresholds and the protection of Québecois identity. While this earned him the scorn of many in the press, it likely paved the way for him to become leader of the party.
Lisée’s Social-Democratic “identity” politics
Since becoming party leader, Lisée has been attempting to recapture the lost ground ceded to the emerging centre-right nationalist Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) and the hard-left sovereigntist Québec Solidaire (QS). The rise of these two parties since 1995, with the CAQ founded in 2011 and QS in 2006, have caused the PQ to be squeezed-in from both its right and left flanks.
In order to address the pressure faced on both sides of the political spectrum, Lisée has employed a unique strategy aimed to attract nationalist and social-democratic voters. With a view to courting nationalist voters, Lisée has proposed changing–and likely reducing–the province’s current immigration threshold of 50,000 by requesting a report on the subject from Quebec’s auditor general.
As a way to depoliticize the issue, Lisée has stated that he will use the auditor general’s report to make a decision. He has denounced the fact that up to 45 percent of immigrants who entered Quebec between 2014 and 2017 have moved to other provinces in the country.
Lisée has repeatedly addressed the subject of enforcing the state’s neutrality on religious matters (also known as laïcité). His party’s platform proposes banning state employees in positions of power–i.e. judges, police officers, and prison guards–from openly displaying any form of religious or political conviction, including all religious garments.
Additionally, he has been forceful in promoting the french language, pushing Premier Philippe Couillard to support a unanimously-voted motion discouraging store employees from welcoming customers with “bonjour-hi.”
However, the PQ’s platform for the 2018 election has moved the party unequivocally to the left. This includes abolishing tuition fees for university or CEGEP students whose parents gain less than the province’s median yearly salary, which according to Statistics Canada is $52,207. This, including other measures, is intended to attract voters sympathetic to Québec Solidare.
In another move aimed at creating momentum for the party, Lisée promoted former rival and MNA Véronique Hivon as the PQ’s “Vice Chef” during the party’s national council meeting in January. This had the purpose of copying the American President/Vice-president model, as well as Quebec Solidaire’s “co-spokespeople” set-up. The measure has been described by some critics as an admission of Lisée’s failure as leader of the party.
What do the polls say?
The PQ has gradually lost popular support since Lisée’s elevation as leader. The party is currently in third place, currently holding 16.5 per cent in the latest polls, trailing the provincial Liberals (29.7 percent) and the front-running Coalition Avenir Québec (32.3 per cent). Falling slightly behind the PQ is Québec Solidaire, receiving 12 per cent.
According to Québec pollster Philippe J. Fournier, the PQ is currently on track to win six seats. This does not include Lisée’s own seat of Rosemont, where the PQ is in third place in a four-way battle against the CAQ, QS, and the provincial Liberals. This would be down from the 28 seats it won in the 2014 election, when it obtained 25 percent of the popular vote.
Many pundits and journalists predict that the 2018 election will mark the end of the party; likening it to the election of 1973 when the Union Nationale effectively disappeared following a short period in power between 1966 and 1969. October’s election may very well represent an end of cycle for the province’s 1960s Quiet Revolution; the period which gave rise to the PQ and the modern sovereignist movement.