There is great consternation over the increasing likelihood that Monday's Quebec election could result in a minority government. Why?
Minority governments are common in Canada. At the federal level, they could be a fact of life for years to come. Ontario experienced minorities throughout much of the 1970s and '80s. Nova Scotia has a minority government now.
Only jurisdictions suffering from ideological cleavages (left versus right in British Columbia; federalism versus separatism in Quebec) or political monocultures (that would be you, Alberta) elect nothing but majority governments.
Nonetheless, since Quebec hasn't had a minority government since the 19th century, it might help to recall the constitutional and conventional rules that will determine who gets to govern Quebec after Monday. You'll be happy to know the news is reassuring.
The first relevant rule is this: After an election, if no party has won a majority of seats, the existing first minister has the right to continue governing.
Usually, if the governing party comes in second, as Pierre Trudeau's Liberals did in 1979 and Paul Martin's Liberals did in 2006, the first minister defers to the leader of the party that won the most seats. But if the incumbent first minister believes he or she could survive a no-confidence vote on a Throne Speech, then he or she has the right -- and even duty -- to give it a try.
In this election, we have the centrist, federalist Liberals, the left-wing, separatist Parti Québécois, and the right-wing, ambiguous Action Démocratique du Québec.
If Jean Charest comes in first or even second on Monday, he can, and should, meet the National Assembly, assuming that the ADQ comes in second or third. The two parties are closer on economic and social policy, and on Canada-Quebec relations, than are the PQ and the ADQ. A minority Charest government should be able to function for some time with ADQ support, either within an explicit accord or on an ad hoc basis.
If the Liberals somehow end up finishing behind the ADQ, then Mr. Charest must resign. Lieutenant-Governor Lise Thibeault would then normally ask André Boisclair, assuming his PQ had the most seats in the National Assembly, to form a government.
But if Mr. Charest advised the Lieutenant-Governor that his third-place party was prepared to support the second-place ADQ, then Ms. Thibeault would probably follow that advice and summon Mario Dumont, instead. Unofficially, but influentially, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper would be urging both Mr. Charest and Mr. Dumont to work together.
Nonetheless, if the situation was unclear, and Mr. Boisclair had won the most seats, then Ms. Thibeault would probably ask him to form a government.
If Mr. Boisclair's government was swiftly defeated on a no-confidence vote, then Ms. Thibeault would ask the ADQ and Liberals to try to work something out. Her overriding duty as Lieutenant-Governor would be to try to craft a workable government, in order to avoid another election.
Of course, it is entirely possible that Mr. Boisclair might form a government, meet the National Assembly, survive a no-confidence vote and get a budget passed. With each success, power to determine when the next election was called would shift from the Lieutenant-Governor to him.
But he would not have it within his power to launch a referendum on separation. The wording for such a referendum would have to be approved by the National Assembly, and Mr. Dumont has declared he wants nothing to do with another referendum.
In short, there is a good chance Jean Charest will get to continue governing, even if he doesn't come in first on Monday; and even if Mr. Boisclair does manage to cobble together a minority government, there will be no referendum for as long as that government survives.
Minority government might work out just fine in Quebec, once people get the hang of it.