By ROBBIE MAHOOD
MONTREAL-Billed in advance as a date with destiny for Parti Quebecois (PQ) Premier Lucien Bouchard and Liberal Party candidate Jean Charest, Quebec’s Nov. 30 election turned out to be a pretty dull affair.
Bouchard easily out-maneuvered his Liberal opponent during the campaign, ably assisted by the ever-obliging prime minister of Canada, Jean “the constitution is not a grocery list” Chretien.
But even left to his own devices, Jean Charest’s strident pro-business and anti-referendum rhetoric allowed Bouchard to portray himself as a more effective defender not only of Quebec’s constitutional interests but also of the role of government in alleviating social tensions.
It was remarkable how much similar ground was occupied by the PQ and the Liberals on the constitution, just as much as social and economic policy. As Michel Auger, writing in Le Journal de Montreal, so colorfully put it: “The two leaders are like Siamese twins joined at the Achilles tendon.”
Andre Picard in the Toronto Globe and Mail was even more trenchant: “The campaign [had] the feel of an interminable company board meeting with two overly ambitious vice-presidents pitching competing proposals to win favor with the shareholders.”
As expected, the PQ retained its comfortable majority in the National Assembly. But it did so with only 42.7 percent of the popular vote; 1 percent less than the Liberals and two percentage points below its score in 1994. The Liberal vote fell marginally as well, compared to 1994, even though the uninspiring Daniel Johnson had been pushed out in favor of the smooth-talking Charest.
Only the Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ) had any real satisfaction, seeing its popular vote almost double to 11.7 percent, although party leader Mario Dumont remains its sole member of the National Assembly.
PQ’s trap of its own making
The pollsters had predicted a more decisive victory for the PQ with as much as a 5 or 6 point advantage over the Liberals in the closing days of the campaign. PQ strategists blamed the polls for lulling their supporters into a false sense of security. Behind the party’s lackluster performance, however, lies a more profound crisis in its relationship with the nationalist movement.
The Bouchard-Bernard Landry (deputy prime minister) team is caught in a trap of its own making. Peddling backwards or at least sideways on independence wins no new converts. To the contrary, it sows confusion and hesitation in the ranks and gives the federalist side a badly needed second wind.
The PQ was hit harder than expected by the fallout from its “zero deficit” crusade. There is widespread anger over its deep cuts to education, social services, and especially health care.
Like the New Democratic Party in English Canada, the PQ is not easily forgiven for its right-wing sins in office. The result: abstention from the campaign and at the polls, as well as a small but significant defection to the ADQ.
Liberals: Little to cheer about
While claiming a moral victory based on the narrow Liberal plurality in votes, the federalists had in reality very little to cheer about. The most disturbing sign is the continued slide in Liberal support within the majority francophone population.
The Liberals could muster only 31 percent support in this crucial sector of the electorate in 1998 compared to around 45 percent in the 1980s. The federalist press tried to blame Charest’s failure on tactical errors and inner-party intrigues. But this is to miss the forest for the trees.
The Quebec Liberal Party is caught between the pumped-up Canadian chauvinism of its nastier big brother in Ottawa and the Quebecois nationalist aspirations it must address if it ever hopes to regain power in Quebec City.
ADQ demagogy pays off
The ADQ’ s strong showing revealed an important undercurrent of alienation from the Liberals and the PQ. The appeal of the ADQ is diverse. On the one hand, it rallies soft nationalists still nervous about sovereignty but for whom the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) is no longer credible in advancing Quebec’s interests.
To this “middle way” on the national question, the ADQ added a right-wing appeal pitched to younger voters. Mario Dumont, for example, promised to reduce the civil service by 25 percent. In keeping with his origins in the Young Liberals, Dumont is even more right-wing in his social and economic philosophy than Charest.
Union bureaucrats’ silent complicity
Quebec’s trade-union leaders offered no political guidance, let alone a coherent alternative in this election. Under pressure from the ranks, the teachers’ union (CEQ) organized a one-day strike and mass rally mid-campaign to press their demand for pay equity.
The FTQ (Quebec Federation of Labour) confined itself to friendly exchanges with Jean Charest over how to amend Quebec’s labor code.
The silence of the union leaderships contributed in no small way to the restrictive pro-business discourse that dominated the campaign. In this way, the ADQ had a virtually free hand to court the protest vote with its conservative bombast.
It was left to the smaller parties of the left, notably the Parti pour la Democratie Socialiste (PDS) and the Rassemblement pour une Alternative Politique (RAP), to inject some real debate. But their efforts were hampered by their scant resources, relative social marginalization, and a virtual media black-out.
PQ plays it safe
The PQ’s muted victory reinforces Bouchard’s cautious brand of conservative nationalism for the time being. The referendum on Quebec sovereignty will be postponed for at least two years and the watchword will be “good government.”
In the meantime, Quebec will take its place at the constitutional table, starting with the social union talks between Ottawa and the provinces.
On the domestic front, the PQ imagines that, having played “hard ball” for the business class in its first mandate, it will have the luxury of presenting a “gentler” face over the next four years. There is the pledge to introduce universal $5-a-day child care by the year 2004 and there were hints in the campaign of addressing the inequities in the new Quebec drug plan.
Evidently, the PQ “left” will be given some scope to repair the party’s tarnished social democratic image and this if for no other reason than to improve the prospects of winning a future referendum.
All of this is predicated on highly dubious assumptions: not only of budgetary surpluses but an upturn in the economic situation with lower unemployment coupled with continuing labor peace. The gathering crisis of global capitalism is likely to dash these expectations. The employing class will keep up its relentless pressure to restrict social expenditures, and for more deregulation and privatization.
Nor can the PQ count forever on the acquiescence of the labor bureaucracy. The public sector negotiations in the spring of 1999 will focus all the pent-up frustration of years of deteriorating wages and working conditions on the union leadership and the government.
By retreating from independence toward partnership/association or even enhanced autonomy within a revamped federalism, Bouchard is leading the nationalist movement into a blind alley.
There can be no objection in principle to a Quebec government committed to future independence continuing to defend Quebec’s interests, as a province, in the federal-provincial constitutional arena. But to suggest that Quebec could parlay tensions between the federal government and the provinces into the granting of de facto national powers to the Quebec state is to perpetuate an illusion, one that unfortunately is all too prevalent among Quebec’s nationalist elite.
It leads directly to an alliance with the most reactionary forces in Canadian politics, in which Quebec’s interests, if they are acknowledged at all, will remain entirely subordinate and expendable.
Robbie Mahood is a member of Socialist Action (Canada) in Montreal. He was a candidate of the Parti pour la Democratie Socialiste (PDS) in the Mont-Royal constituency in the recent election.