Stars appear to be aligning for snap Quebec election

The failure of Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois to win a majority in 2012 put to rest the notion that the return of a sovereigntist government in Quebec would kick-start a new round of referendum hostilities.

The failure of Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois to win a majority in 2012 put to rest the notion that the return of a sovereigntist government in Quebec would kick-start a new round of referendum hostilities.

Polls suggest that could soon change.

This week, both CROP and Léger Marketing gave the PQ enough of a leading edge in voting intentions to put a majority within Marois’ reach.

With the wind of public opinion at her back in francophone Quebec, the premier is unlikely to let the opportunity to solidify her hold on power slip away.

Rather than wait to see if the opposition will have the fortitude to bring down the government over the spring budget, Marois might well take matters in her own hands and call a snap election.

The PQ’s secularism charter has gone a long way to shift the electoral momentum to the government.

Predictably the plan is popular with the francophone electorate that determines the outcome of Quebec elections.

But it is the performance of Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard that ultimately stands to make a quick election call irresistible.

Nine months into the job, Jean Charest’s successor has turned out to be less than ready for prime time.

Despite the glaring absence of empirical evidence to support the government’s proposed charter and despite the refusal of major elements of Quebec civil society to support it, Couillard has failed to make a scratch in the veneer of the PQ’s narrative.

It has not helped that he has been consistent only in flip-flopping.

Almost six months into the debate, his party was still scrambling this week to agree on a position that it could sustain for more than a few news cycles.

It is hardly the first time that the Quebec Liberals have struggled with an identity-related issue.

In the face of the passionate nationalist appeals of the Yes camp in the 1995 referendum, they offered what can only be described as a wet-noodle defence of federalism.

Two decades later, the charter debate has once again brought more ambivalence than conviction about the case they purport to make.

In their more successful past incarnations, they compensated for that on other fronts.

But it has been decades since a Quebec federalist leader has had constitutional progress to show for his dealings with the rest of Canada and every promising beginning has ended in failure.

Any commitment on the part of Couillard to reform federalism along the lines of Quebec’s so-called traditional demands cannot but fail the test of reality.

And then in contrast with Marois and CAQ Leader François Legault, Couillard has never held an economic portfolio.

Based on his uncertain performance to date he will have to work hard to hold his own against his rivals on the economy in the election debates.

The travails of a provincial opposition leader are usually of little consequence for the country as a whole, except when the travails are those of the leading federalist on the Quebec scene.

No one should doubt that a majority PQ government would focus its considerable resources on recreating the conditions for a winning referendum on sovereignty.

And while polls suggest that could be a challenge, anyone who has followed the secularism charter debate would be foolish to dismiss the possibility out of hand.

If it has shown anything it is:

a) that there is still quite a bit of political mileage to be had by stoking the collective cultural insecurity of francophone Quebecers;

b) that Marois’ government will stop at little within its powers to advance a goal that it has set its eye on.

No election outcome is preordained.

The PQ could still stumble on the way to a majority victory later this year.

But the odds that the Quebec/Canada issue will make a return on the national radar in time for the 2015 federal campaign are substantially higher now than even six months ago.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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