In Quebec last week, former Parti Québécois minister François Legault finally threw his hat into the ring with the official creation of his new party : Coalition Avenir Québec.
Not much new was said. No candidates were revealed, and the platform tidbits had already been floated by Legault’s informal group. The only novelty was the flashy logo.
When questioners tried to push Legault beyond his carefully prepared script, the answer was invariably “On verra” (We’ll see). When asked to take a stand on the defining issues of Quebec politics, the CAQ is neither here nor there.
When Legault quit the PQ, he claimed the party wasn’t pushing hard enough on sovereignty. He now wishes to shelve the issue, but won’t call himself a federalist. Although Quebecers voted left in last May’s federal election, Legault will run on a right-of-centre platform while rejecting the left-right labels.
Yet polls predict an easy victory for the CAQ. What’s happening ?
Electorates can be fickle at the margins, but their underlying structures tend to be fairly stable. Since the late 1960s, the province’s idiosyncratic sovereignty-federalism divide has coincided, roughly, with the more universal left-right dimension to form a stable two-party system. With the rise of the Bloc Québécois, the structure was more or less replicated at the federal level from 1993 to 2008.
On the national question, for the past two decades, solid sovereignist or federalist identifiers have each represented between a quarter and a third of the electorate, with a middle group of moderates on whom neither label sticks too well.
The rise of the PQ was a “realignment” of the system. A weakening of either dominant party (or both) can also lead to a “dealignment,” followed by a return to the previous order.
This happened in 2007, when Mario Dumont’s Action démocratique du Québec shook the system but could not make it fall, largely because it could not establish its credibility as a governing alternative, but also because defeat led the PQ to clean up its act — or so it seemed.
Does the sudden rise of Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec signal a fundamental realignment, or merely a temporary lull in the decades-old system ?
Looking at this from the bottom up, there is little evidence that the structure of the electorate is shifting. Although support for sovereignty is receding, its key underlying causes are still present : a Quebec-centred identity, an unsettled linguistic situation, lingering economic tensions and a widening of the values gap between Quebec and Canada.
The picture is different from the top down. Indeed, the two prime beneficiaries of this stable structure seem to be hard at work undermining their own “duopoly” on power.
After eight years in office during tough times, the Liberals have endured levels of dissatisfaction hovering around 75 per cent throughout 2011. Whatever the substance of the allegations of corruption that dog his party, Jean Charest’s prolonged efforts to escape the inevitable public inquiry into the matter sapped the public’s confidence.
Things are even worse in the PQ. After losing a chunk of its urban progressive base to the quixotic Québec Solidaire, the party could have renewed itself and re-centred its program. It did not, mostly because many of its militants still can’t wrap their heads around the fact that if they want to have any chance of attaining sovereignty, they first have to govern, and govern well.
To make matters worse, entrenched interpersonal rivalries that have little to do with ideas or policies have eroded the public’s confidence in the PQ almost as much as perceptions of corruption have for the Liberals.
This confidence gap creates a huge opportunity for new, untried outsiders to step in, as the NDP did at the federal level.
Thus, in recent polls, voters judge the largely unknown CAQ more apt to solve the province’s most intractable problems than the two established parties. But Legault’s support is thin. When presented with the unlikely hypothesis of Gilles Duceppe as PQ leader, voters would shift massively back to the PQ.
There are many more signs of volatility in Quebec public opinion, but none is more important than the fact that party loyalty among voters seems to be at its lowest point in many years, which promises a rocky road from here to the next election.
In such a volatile context, to quote Cole Porter, “Anything goes !” That’s precisely what François Legault’s new coalition offers, for the moment.
Pierre Martin is a professor of political science at the Université de Montréal.