Peter Schrank - AT FIRST sight, Quebec's provincial election altered nothing. Jean Charest, the plodding federalist who leads the Quebec Liberal Party, will remain in office as provincial premier. Yet almost everything else has changed. The separatist Parti Québécois (PQ) has suffered a possibly terminal drubbing. With that, the federalist-separatist divide that has defined the French-speaking province's politics and infected the politics of the rest of English-speaking Canada for more than a generation may become a thing of the past.
In its place there is a new party, Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ), and a new demand for “autonomy”—whatever that might mean. And in the short term, at least, the rise of the ADQ may also redraw Canada's political map in favour of Stephen Harper, the federal Conservative prime minister.
In any other election in Quebec over the past century the Liberal haul of just 48 seats would have sent Mr Charest to the unemployment office. But the surge in support for the ADQ has turned a two-party system into a tripartite one (see chart). Mr Charest will head the province's first minority government since 1878.
The ADQ and its leader, Mario Dumont, were the real winners of the election. Where the Parti Québécois is social-democrat and wants independence, the ADQ is conservative and moderately nationalist. Only six months ago, it was written off as a one-man band. During the campaign Mr Dumont was plagued by the ill-chosen remarks of ill-chosen candidates. One pooh-poohed violence against women, another attacked immigrants who didn't embrace Quebec ways, a third accused Jews of starting wars as a means to enrich themselves. And Mr Dumont's party was heavily outspent by the Liberals and the Parti Québécois.
That it nevertheless pushed the PQ into third place and its worst result since its debut in 1970 was in part a personal triumph for the politically deft Mr Dumont, a former Liberal aged only 36. But he also tapped a wider desire for change.
Like an increasing number of Quebeckers, Mr Dumont refuses to define himself as either a federalist or a separatist. Instead, he and his party favour “autonomy”—that Quebec should stay in Canada but with increased powers. What he really advocates is setting aside the stale argument over Quebec's relationship with Canada and moving on to other matters.
This stance was never taken very seriously by Montreal's chattering classes. But along with Mr Dumont's conservative platform, it seems to have resonated with French-speakers elsewhere in the province, in the suburbs and farming areas and even in Quebec City. Voters in these places usually decide Quebec's elections.
In the past they have often backed the Parti Québécois, which twice held referendums on independence and came within a few thousand votes of winning one of them in 1995. This time the PQ's promise to hold another referendum if elected put many voters off, perhaps for good. The PQ's slide will continue, predicts Vincent Lemieux, a veteran political scientist: “I don't think they'll ever govern again.” He says that Quebec's main nationalist parties tend to last a generation before being supplanted by another with a different vision. The PQ, which grew out of the radical post-colonial fervour of the 1960s, may just find its time is up.
It was not helped by its newish young leader, André Boisclair. His Milan suits, open homosexuality and use of cocaine while a cabinet minister turned off many traditionalists. Some of them stayed at home, while others switched to the ADQ. In defeat, Mr Boisclair said he would stay as leader and argue for the PQ to reconsider some of its policies. But the party may find it easier to change its leader than to begin a debate about its raison d'être of independence.
The rise of the ADQ also confirms a drift to the right in Quebec. The party's platform featured support for the family, slashing welfare, a greater role for private health care and vague calls that immigrants conform to local customs. Its role as the official opposition could mean, paradoxically, that Mr Charest's second term is easier than his first, despite having lost his majority. Mr Charest, a former leader of the federal Conservatives, tried to slim down government but was often frustrated by the PQ and its trade-union allies.
The election was good news, too, for Mr Harper in Ottawa. In this month's budget, his government offered extra money to Quebec in a transparent effort to show that federalism can work. With a supporter in Mr Charest and an admirer in Mr Dumont, Mr Harper may be encouraged to call an election himself. He, too, heads a minority government and believes that the road to a majority runs through Quebec.
But in the longer run, Quebec's vote may pose new questions. One is whether separatism is quite as moribund as it now seems. The other, if it is, is what “autonomy” means in practice, beyond demands for yet more cash from Ottawa.
Au revoir separatism, bonjour “autonomy”
Quebec's voters have turned their province's politics upside down, and may have reshaped those of Canada