Sovereignty colours electoral reform

2006 textes seuls

Like a number of other provinces, Quebec is thinking of changing its voting system to include an element of proportional representation (PR).
And just like elsewhere in Canada, this is an issue that no more than a handful of political scientists feels passionate about.
And naturally, the only people who care to participate in the public debate are those in favour of change. This winter, for example, the Charest government held a series of regional forums on PR and, predictably, the crowds were small and essentially made up of ardent PR proponents.
But beyond these similarities with the rest of the country, in Quebec, as usual, the debate has taken a very distinct turn: The voting system has a direct effect on the sovereignty issue and so, once again, the question nationale is at the heart of the polemic.
There is no mystery why this is the case. The present system greatly favours the sovereigntist Parti Québécois, because a sizable portion of the Liberal vote is concentrated in a few predominantly anglophone ridings in the Montreal area. To win an election, the Quebec Liberal Party must be ahead by at least 5 percentage points in the popular vote.
The PQ is not against the reform, though -- at least not in principle. It, too, has suffered from the distortions of the system in the past -- in 1970 and 1973, the PQ elected only a handful of MNAs, even though it had more than 25 per cent of the vote -- and because of that, it always maintained a proposal for PR in its program.
But the frustrations arising from the "first past the post" system happened a long time ago and since then, during all its years in power, the PQ never managed to act on the issue.
Nowadays, the PQ says it supports introducing PR -- but only after sovereignty has been achieved. Until then, the party wants to preserve its electoral advantage. According to sovereigntist pollster Pierre Drouilly, if in the past the system had been changed to include PR, the PQ would hardly have been able to form majority governments between 1970 and 2003. Moreover, it probably wouldn't have had the parliamentary strength to call referendums on sovereignty in 1980 and 1995.
The Charest government's first draft -- which might undergo many changes before a bill is tabled some time in the fall -- calls for the election of 77 (rather than the current 125) MNAs by the first-past-the-post system; 50 additional seats would be allocated to the various parties according to their share of the popular vote. Yet this proposal wouldn't much benefit the smaller parties, since they would need 15 per cent of the vote to obtain an allocated seat; up until now, neither the Green Party nor the leftist groups have been able to muster more than 10 per cent. Only Mario Dumont's centre-right Action Démocratique du Québec could gain a few more seats.
The Liberals kindheartedly promise that the next election, scheduled for 2007 or 2008, will be fought under the present rules.
But this is not good enough for the PQ, since nothing guarantees:
1. that the PQ will win the next election;
2. that it will be able to achieve sovereignty during a first mandate.
Even then, it is likely that any referendum victory would be an extremely close one. Since the province would be deeply divided and on the brink of chaos, the PQ would probably have to call a quick election in order to secure its referendum win -- and playing with the new rules would deprive it of a precious 5 per cent or 6 per cent of the popular vote.
Now, the debate is raging among the political class and the "poli-sci" experts.
One of the issues is whether the reform of the voting system can be adopted by a mere (Liberal) majority in the National Assembly, or if it should also have the support of the PQ (which forms the Official Opposition) or -- another option -- be submitted to a province-wide referendum.
Needless to say, the various proponents stand by the option that best serves their views on sovereignty.

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