New leader, new tactics for Quebec’s Parti Québécois

New leader, new tactics for Quebec’s Parti Québécois

The election of Jean Francois Lisée is bringing about a change of tactics for the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ). The unpopular provincial Liberal Party of Quebec (PLQ) fears a PQ that, for the first time, campaigns against them rather than for independence.

The Parti Québécois, the dominant political party in the separatist movement in Quebec, elected their new leader on Sunday. Jean-François Lisée, a 58-year old journalist and political adviser for former Quebec prime ministers Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, surprisingly beat his 3 younger opponents in the election for the PQ’s ninth leadership. Lisée gained grounds among PQ members in recent months and outmaneuvered the initial favorite Alexandre Cloutier, largely by successfully bringing the discourse of secularization and immigration into the debate.

Reactions from many Canadians were condemnatory, especially from the anglophone media who have long regarded the PQ as representing the worst instincts of French-Canadian nationalism. Many commentators predictably argued that the election only cemented the PQ’s growing irrelevance in contemporary politics, yet those comments fail to understand the political landscape in Quebec and the fact that the PQ could offer many Quebecers a more palatable choice than the current Liberal provincial government.

The Liberals a choice by default

Outside of the province, the political landscape is often narrowed down to either for or against separatism. In reality, many voters lack a credible option that represents their political allegiance and the Liberal party, despite their many corruption scandals and generally low approval ratings, are often left as the only choice by default. The PQ has consistently campaigned for another referendum during their mandate since the one in 1995 was narrowly defeated, leaving the party an unacceptable choice for most centrist voters that do not favor independence. The left-wing Quebec Solidaire enjoy little support outside of the young and urban-educated, and, being more European-minded than other Canadian provinces in terms of social welfare and health care, the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) is far too conservative for many.

The Liberals, or the PLQ, has been Quebec’s governing party since 2003 except during PQ’s 18 month-long minority government from 2012-2014. The Liberal’s last time in power culminated in a long string of corruption scandals, reaching to the top of the party, during the final years of the government of Jean Charest. The current majority government of Philippe Couillard has remained remarkably unpopular since their election: nearly 70% disapprove of the government and a recent polling found that only 20% of voters saw Couillard as the best option for prime minister. The Government has spent the last two years implementing a range of unpopular austerity measures, which compare poorly to the “Sunny Ways” of the Federal Liberals under Justin Trudeau’s government.


Support for political parties in Quebec. Source: Le Devoir

Separatism still a salient political issue

Those predicting the imminent decline of the PQ must bear in mind that separatism is still a force to be reckoned with in Quebec. Although support for independence has been fluctuating, it was still supported by 40% of the respondents in a poll as recently as November 2015. The PQ, as the face of the sovereignist movement, must balance the line between attracting voters who support their traditional centre-left policies while at the same time attract conservative francophone nationalists, who may not have Quebec independence as their most immediate concern. Lisée recently said he was “interested in CAQ voters”, which coincided with him, in a cynical manner, bringing up “identity politics” in the leadership race as part of his future political platform. This controversial debate dealt with everything from banning the burqa and forbidding public employees from wearing the hijab – under the guise of maintaining a secular state – and whether immigrants have been a benefit to Quebec or not. It was the cornerstone of the proposed and highly controversial Quebec Charter of Values, aimed at establishing a French-style secularization of the province, which many Canadians believed to have faded with the PQ government’s defeat in the 2014 election.

The PQ defeat in 2014 has been incorrectly linked to their decision to campaign on the Charter as a main electoral issue, which was actually supported by a majority of French-Canadians. Rather, it is attributed to their stumbling election campaign, in particular to comments made by businessman-turned-politician, Pierre-Karl Peladeau, who unintentionally brought the question of yet another referendum into the campaign. Lisée, generally acknowledged to be a brilliant but cynical politician, favoured shelving the question of a referendum until at least a second PQ government after 2022, as the next provincial election is in 2018. Tired of playing permanent opposition to the liberals, he convinced the party to focus on the top priority of beating the unpopular liberals. Polls have consistently shown that Lisée was the candidate most likely to beat Couillard in a provincial election, and the Liberal Party rightfully fears a PQ that campaigns against them rather than for independence.

Increasing generational irrelevance?

The direction chosen by Lisée and the PQ could possibly lead to an election victory in the short-term perspective, but there are arguments that their raison d’etre – independence for Quebec – is becoming increasingly unlikely with time. A recent study by Eric Belanger and Valérie-Anne Mahéo of The University of Montreal and McGill University argues that “Generation Y” is less likely to favour independence and less likely to favour politics such as the Charter of Values, predicting a gradual demise of the PQ with time. The average age of their party member is 61 years old, and it is certain that Lisée is more appealing to baby boomers, who are more reliable voters, than the younger generation.

The long-term relevance of the PQ and their future success in mobilizing enough support for a third referendum – a prospect most Quebecers believe is unlikely – depends on their ability to attract more young voters, aided by another Harper-style federal government, which would be enormously unpopular in Quebec. Therefore, a party that has been in power for 21 years of the last 40 years should not be written off as a viable governing party of Quebec.

Categories: North America, Politics

About Author

Havard Bergo

Håvard is a foreign policy analyst who works in Kampala for LPC Consult International, a consulting company that specializes on developing projects in East Africa and Mozambique. He has previously worked with the United Nations in Bangkok and as a project manager for a research project in Montreal. Håvard graduated with an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE).