End of sovereigntist dream?
Quebecers put the dream of an aging cohort of sovereigntist baby boomers on indefinite and — perhaps — permanent hold on Monday.
In the process, they have inflicted a life-threatening defeat on the Parti Québécois.
It is not just that Pauline Marois’ Parti Québécois government is the first not to be re-elected to a second term in more than four decades.
Or that it was beaten by its long-standing Liberal nemesis after the shortest mandate — a mere 18 months — in the history of the province.
Premier-designate Philippe Couillard leads a party whose federalist foundations are never more rock solid than in the face of a perceived referendum threat.
Through some sovereigntist overkill on the PQ’s part, this campaign became a referendum on a referendum early on. The result is that Quebec voters used Monday’s election to slam the door in the PQ’s face on another vote on their political future and on the opportunity to go down the road of secession.
PQ insiders have long feared that their party could not survive without the glue of sovereignty to hold it together.
They will now have to find out the hard way whether there is life for a party whose existence has been defined by its secessionist quest in a political environment that has become so viscerally hostile to its efforts.
There are ominous signs that will be difficult. François Legault’s party (Coalition for Quebec’s Future) finished the evening barely two points behind the PQ in the popular vote and Marois resigned after having lost her own seat.
On Monday, the PQ bled support on the right to the Coalition Avenir Québec across francophone Quebec and to the left to Québec Solidaire on the Island of Montreal.
And yet if the PQ is true to form, it may once more go into denial, putting the blame for the debacle on its latest failed messenger-in-chief rather than on a message whose relevance is lost on a majority of Quebecers.
In the two decades since the close 1995 referendum vote, the PQ has won a majority government only once — in 1998 — and even then it came second in the popular vote behind the Liberals.
With every campaign, it has seen its dominance of francophone Quebec increasingly challenged by two third parties.
Over the same period, the Bloc Québécois was swept off the map by the NDP, probably — if Monday’s provincial results are any indication of what is to come federally — never to return as anything more than a marginal presence in Parliament.
To every message that Quebec voters were tuning out sovereignty, the PQ has essentially responded by shutting its ears to all but those who sang from its hymn book.
Over the past month, that self-imposed tone-deafness has led to a campaign of false notes.
One such false note was the second-coming atmosphere that attended the recruitment of media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau. Another was Marois’ end-of-campaign mea culpa that she spent too much time entertaining the twin notions of sovereignty and a winning referendum.
One of the PQ’s worst fears has long been that it would turn out to be the party of a single generation.
Over their short time in office, Marois and her team have done much to turn that fear into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It has long been apparent that the so-called secularism charter that has been the signature initiative of the outgoing government repelled more young Quebecers than it attracted to the secessionist cause.
For the first time in its history, the PQ is more popular among voters aged 55 and over than among any other age group.
But it was not only voters in generations X and Y that were turned off.
Many long-standing sovereigntist supporters no longer recognized the party of their youth in a PQ that catered to the fear of others to promote its secularism charter or that so easily set aside its social democrat mantras to embrace the likes of P.K.P.
It will not be easy to reconnect a party of cranky baby boomers obsessed by the ticking of their biological clocks with a Quebec that is ready to move forward without them.
But unless that happens, Monday’s not now will become not ever.
Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.