PQ elected in Quebec, but can it govern?

MONTREAL – The independence-seeking Parti Québécois has won the plurality of seats in a provincial election that could now thrust it into an unfamiliar position: governing with a parliamentary minority.

MONTREAL – The Parti Quebecois is celebrating a return to power after nine years in opposition but its parade has been dampened by a weaker-than-desired result that could severely limit its ability to pursue its independence agenda.

The party has never governed with a minority in its history and, therefore, has never faced the challenge of tabling an inaugural speech — or any other confidence measures — with the support of other parties that oppose its agenda.

One factor could help resurrect the independence program: it was unclear whether the final seat numbers would ultimately leave another pro-independence party, the smaller and more left-wing Quebec solidaire, with the balance of power.

The PQ won or was leading in about 57 ridings in Tuesday’s election, shy of the 63 needed for a majority in the 125-seat legislature. Quebec solidaire won two seats.

Barring a late surprise the PQ could now face an awkward balancing act — pleasing its ardently pro-independence base, while getting parliamentary backing from other parties.

The governing Liberals had a far better-than-expected result and were leading or elected in about 47 ridings, holding onto official Opposition status and staving off the electoral annihilation many had predicted. The newly formed Coalition party had a disappointing night, winning or leading in about 20 ridings.

Among party leaders, the leader of the PQ and likely premier Pauline Marois was easily elected in her riding; the Coalition’s Francois Legault held a narrow lead; and Quebec solidaire’s two co-leaders, Amir Khadir and Francoise David, were elected.

Liberal Premier Jean Charest, meanwhile, was trailing badly in his riding of Sherbrooke and appeared poised to lose his seat for the first time in nine federal or provincial elections.

Charest’s status is a major wildcard: It’s unknown whether he would stay on to lead the party, or how his party would vote in the legislature without a leader there.

There appeared to be a surge in voter turnout, with the number of ballots cast by 5:30 p.m. more than one-quarter higher than at the same hour in the previous election.

The sovereigntist PQ led in surveys throughout the campaign with its support pegged in the low-30s, leaving open the question of whether a majority government was within reach.

A PQ victory would terminate the reign of Charest, the resolutely pro-Canada premier who made the transition from national politics in 1998 when the federalist forces in the province were leaderless and fearful of another sovereignty referendum.

Charest’s Liberals had won the popular vote in every provincial campaign he led and, since 2003, had held power with three straight election victories.

The intervening years saw his government occasionally clash with Ottawa over policies related to criminal justice, the environment and health transfers but those skirmishes had generally been brief and sporadic.

The party poised to win tonight is the one that was consistently pushing Charest to take a harder line against Ottawa, and that frequently accused him of sacrificing Quebec’s interests for fear of creating a schism with Canada.

The PQ would have no such qualms about schisms. The idea of confrontation with Ottawa is a central theme built into its platform.

The party plans to either demand or create new provincial powers, including a “Quebec citizenship.” To get that document, future immigrants would have to prove they speak French, and the document would be a requirement to run for public office.

The party would also demand a transfer of powers from Ottawa that touch on domestic and international affairs. Targets include employment insurance, copyright policy and foreign-assistance funding.

Should the Supreme Court get in the way of any new language laws, or should Ottawa say no to any request, the PQ has a backup plan: use each defeat as kindling to stoke the embers of the independence movement.

“There are a multitude of examples where we can make the demonstration that we would be best served if we decided for ourselves,” the PQ’s Marois said during the campaign.

“It’s obvious that (each federal rejection) will demonstrate the impossibility that we will ever be recognized as a distinct society.”

In the past, support for independence hasn’t reached its highest peaks because of actions by a PQ government — but because of outside events.

Two examples are the early 1990s, when an attempt to get Quebec constitutionally recognized as a “distinct society” failed, and in 2004 at the height of the sponsorship scandal.

The PQ has its work cut out for it, if it hopes to revive the flames of independence.

A recent survey pegged support for sovereignty at 28 per cent — or roughly half the historic levels recorded in the early ’90s.

Marois has sought to reassure moderate voters that there will be no automatic referendum under her watch.

“I am a responsible woman,” said Marois, an experienced politician who held no less than 15 cabinet portfolios under Rene Levesque, Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry.

“I have convictions and I am going to defend them. There will be a referendum when the Quebec population wants a referendum.”

Marois voted in her Quebec City-area riding on Tuesday and said it could be an historic day if she becomes Quebec’s first-ever female premier. She would become the fifth woman to lead a Canadian province or territory.

When reporters asked her Tuesday how she was preparing for the possibility of becoming premier, she replied: “I’ve been preparing for 30 years.”

Apart from the possibility that the polls are off, there are still several factors that could leave the election result up for grabs — a late shift in support, the strength of get-out-the-vote operations, or bizarre local splits in the three-way race.

There was one major wildcard throughout the election: Legault’s new Coalition party.

With the polls relatively tight, it had never been clear whether this new party might ultimately play the role of contender, spoiler, kingmaker, or non-entity.

Less than a year old, the party gobbled up the ADQ and touted itself as a third way for voters seeking to turn the page on the province’s highly polarized politics.

Its leader is a former PQ cabinet minister and, until recently, an ardent sovereigntist. Legault’s caucus and his entourage are a mix — hence the name “Coalition” — of sovereigntists, staunch federalists, and middle-of-the-road-nationalists.

The party proposed pausing the independence debate for at least a decade. In the meantime, it wants to make structural changes in health care, education and economic policy.

The Coalition’s proposed changes include shifting high schools to a 9-to-5 schedule, abolishing school boards, and providing a family doctor to every resident.

Its economic policies included several nods to the right, such as a call for cuts in the public service, and some to the left such as a proposal for larger state support for Quebec companies.

It also recruited the most famous anti-corruption whistleblower in the province and promises to clean up graft and collusion in the public-tendering process.

Legault voted in his riding of L’Assomption and described the day as historic: “We need a change in Quebec and we have to stop being divided around the referendum (question),” Legault said Tuesday.

Charest was the last of the three main leaders to cast his ballot, doing so in his hometown of Sherbrooke. He was greeted by about a dozen noisy demonstrators wearing the red square that symbolizes the student protests against tuition hikes.

Before voting, he stopped at a number of Liberal campaign offices to thank volunteers.

Charest was an underdog when he called the election but he entered into it at a moment many considered the most hospitable timing for his party.

The province’s corruption inquiry is off during its summer holiday — and the return to school is on.

That timing might have helped push to the background ethics scandals that dogged his government such as the minister, Tony Tomassi, who quit politics and is set to appear in court on fraud charges.

Charest wanted to talk about law and order of another kind — in other words, not yielding to student protesters.

Just over a month ago, Charest kicked off the election campaign with an appeal to what he called “the silent majority,” meaning those voters who opposed last spring’s protests and who might be eager to punish the PQ for supporting them.

But the protests died down during the campaign. Most students have gone back to class, and only a few holdout university faculties and the most ardent protesters have kept up the fight.

So the battle over tuition never wound up taking centre stage.

A protest with people banging pots and pans, of the sort often seen since the spring, was larger and more festive than usual in Montreal on Monday night as demonstrators celebrated the anticipated demise of the Liberal government.

Charest also tried to frame the election as a choice between job growth and prosperity and the upheaval of a sovereigntist PQ government.

He argued the Coalition would also lead to instability in fragile economic times.

Charest joked that if the PQ won, and called a referendum, Legault would have to spend the campaign hiding in his basement. Legault’s party has no official policy on whether Quebec and Canada should, in the long term, be one country.

While trying to woo federalist voters recently, Legault said he would vote against independence in a referendum even if he didn’t participate in the campaign. He also recently described himself as a “Canadian.”

But he says he wouldn’t campaign for Canadian unity.

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