Quebec politics are unique in North America because of the two distinct dimensions along which political battles are fought. In addition to the standard left-right dimension, there is the sovereignty-federalism one. For whatever reason, sovereigntists in the province have, as a general rule, tended to align themselves with the left, while federalists have tended to align themselves with the right.
This state of affairs leaves two gaping holes in the province’s crowded field of political parties. Right-wing separatists are largely without a home, and — somewhat surprisingly — so are progressive federalists. I say this is surprising because Quebec is widely regarded as the most left-leaning province in the country. And according to recent opinion polls, more Quebeckers would vote “no” in a sovereignty referendum than would vote “yes.” How could such apparently fertile ground for a successful left-wing federalist provincial party be overlooked? Have we learned nothing from the NDP’s surge in Quebec in last year’s federal election?
Instead, only three parties are thought to have any shot at governing at the provincial level: the Parti Quebecois, the Parti liberal du Quebec, and the Coalition Avenir Quebec. The Parti Quebecois now appears almost certain to win the upcoming election on September 4, but there remain two unknowns. First, who will form the Official Opposition? The incumbent Liberals are no longer guaranteed a second-place finish, but they cannot be ruled out yet.
Second, will the PQ win a majority or a minority government? The latter might yield the best of all possible worlds from a progressive federalist standpoint. The inevitable negotiations between parties that accompany minority governments could result in some heretofore unexplored political compromises — namely, the passage of left-wing legislation without risk of secession.
But it is risky to count on something like that. Theoretically, a minority government could just as easily result in right-wing sovereignty. So what are progressive federalists to do? In casting their ballots, should they prioritize the national question or the left-right spectrum?
The opinion-makers of English Canada will not like to hear this, but the case could be made that the latter is more important. Even if the Parti Quebecois gets a majority, a separate, stand-alone referendum will be necessary before Quebec declares independence. No such second vote will take place on socioeconomic issues like taxation, spending, and regulation.
Does that mean that progressive federalists should feel perfectly fine about voting for sovereigntist parties? Of course not. I certainly wouldn’t. But sometimes difficult choices have to be made.
With that lengthy introduction out of the way, I hereby present my endorsements for the 2012 Quebec election (not that anyone asked!). Here I rank the major parties in order of preference:
1. Parti vert du Quebec
Anyone who regularly reads this blog (anyone?) knows of my well-established bias in favour of Green parties. But this is especially so in Quebec, where the Greens are literally the only progressive federalists among the six largest parties. Plus, they’re green! Sadly, since they are only running candidates in just over half of the ridings, any Quebec voter who does not have the opportunity to vote Green is advised to keep reading.
2. Quebec solidaire
“A party of the ballot box and of the street” as it styles itself, Quebec solidaire is the electoral wing of radical left-wing social movements in Quebec. Composed of environmental, social justice, and anti-war activists, the party seeks to fight the neoliberalism it identifies with the larger parties, and is the electoral force most enthusiastically supportive of this year’s student protest movement against tuition hikes. Unfortunately, Quebec solidaire is also a sovereigntist party, but it does not value independence for its own sake. Rather, it envisions a nation-state of Quebec as part of a broader project of social progress and inclusion.
3. Parti Quebecois
As far as I am concerned, the widest gap in this ranking is between my second and third choices. The Parti Quebecois, this election’s likely victor, is a moderate social democratic party. On the downside, not only is it Quebec’s foremost advocate of separation, but as has been widely reported in the English Canadian media, it has in recent years taken a turn for the xenophobic. The party is proposing a “Charter of Secularism” that would bar public employees from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs, yarmulkes, and turbans on the job, although inexplicably, Christian symbols would be exempt. The only reason I am not ranking the PQ lower on my list is that such discriminatory legislation will almost certainly be ruled unconstitutional by the courts.
4. Parti liberal du Quebec
Don’t let the name fool you. The Liberals are Quebec’s conservatives. Their leader was the head of the old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, and during their recent years in power, their agenda has been defined by draconian cuts to taxes and spending. Just this year, the government inadvertently unleashed a hellstorm in the streets all over Quebec when it drastically increased university tuition fees and subsequently limited the rights of students to protest. On the national question, the PLQ is federalist, but that does not exonerate its reactionary policies.
5. Coalition Avenir Quebec
The upstart Coalition Avenir Quebec in some respects combines the worst of the PQ and the PLQ. Like the latter, it is a party of austerity. But despite silence on the subject from the fawning English Canadian media, it shares some of the Parti Quebecois’ discriminatory policies against religious minorities. The CAQ also tries to have it both ways on the sovereignty issue. While its leader, a former PQ cabinet minister, is widely believed to still be a separatist, the party is proposing a moratorium on sovereignty referendums until the province has put its economy in order.
6. Option nationale
An offshoot of the PQ, Option nationale is more stridently focussed on separation than its parent party. Unlike the mainstream sovereigntist movement, this small left-wing party does not want to wait for a referendum. A majority Option nationale government would consider itself to have a mandate to seek immediate autonomy from the Canadian federal government, which it would eventually formalize as full-on sovereignty after a referendum on a new Quebec constitution. Granted, Quebec’s independence would not be official until this final popular endorsement, but the fact that the party would start to put the wheels of secession in motion before it is approved by a majority of Quebeckers strikes me as fundamentally anti-democratic. As I have stated before, I have always considered the principled insistence on a referendum by Quebec separatists a sign of respectability in a movement I otherwise disagree with.