Sunday, December 7, 2008

Québec goes to the polls amid federal crisis

The current governing crisis in Canada becomes even more fascinating when wondering how it will affect the ongoing Québec elections that started almost a full month earlier and are set to be decided tomorrow.

Until this crisis, the curiosities in this race were few.

The Parti Libéral called the election, because they have that right as the government party and chose to exercise it because of a comfortable approval rating which seemed to guarantee a climb from ruling as a minority party to becoming a majority and not having to suffer the slings and arrows of the opposition.

The Action Démocratique du Québec, the Québécois idea of a conservative party, had been widely suspected of only rising from fringe status with its 4 seats to having the second most after the last election, because voters were convinced of the Libéral landslide predicted in the polls and took the opportunity to cast protest ballots to the minor ADQ. Should their number of seats wither, as polls showing their support reduced into the teens preview, that theory will be vindicated and the idea of a realignment within Québec politics with a serious conservative element will be discredited.

The Parti Québécois, after becoming smallest member of the Assemblée and losing the title of Official Opposition to the ADQ in the last election, went through some soul-searching in which they appointed a new leader and de-emphasized sovereignty, their raison d'être, to a public relations campaign without more than incremental steps toward achieving it for policy proposals. Muted on their central issue, the PQ have fought this election largely by nitpicking the administration of the governing Parti Libéral, with whom they share a remarkably similar agenda in most other aspects.

Given all this, it is entirely unsurprising that most early polls had shown a rise in popular support for the Libérals by almost 10% since the last election. These same polls showed the ADQ dropping 16%, leaving the PQ to gain the 6% difference and, enough for them to recapture opposition status.

Interupting this glide into easy power for the Libérals, came the drama unfolding in Ottawa where all three opposition parties designed to collaborate to bring down the still nascent Conservative government only elected in October. I would have guessed the effects of this on the Québec elections to be restrained to excacerbating voter fatigue, which would likely favor the status quo, but would be a fairly minimal factor. That is until Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper went on national television last Wednesday and said,
"They propose a new coalition which includes the party in Parliament whose avowed goal is to break up the country. Let me be very clear: Canada's Government cannot enter into a power-sharing coalition with a separatist party."
This statement, coupled by the fact that his later address in French lacked the same rhetorical edge, has caused a nationalist backlash within the province that has forced Libéral premier Jean Charest into the awkward position of defending the legitamacy of sovereignty as a political issue within Québec.

And sure enough it is having an effect: different polling agencies have registered rising support for the PQ since the day of that speech from 29% to 36% just two days later on Friday.

My suspicions are that cooler heads will prevail upon entering the polling booth tomorrow and that the end results will be consistent with polling before the speech: a Libéral majority, a weak PQ opposition and an ADQ shuffling back toward an eventual return to its single-digit population in the Assemblée.

But I'll still be paying attention, because I'm from New Hampshire and, if we know nothing else about elections, it's that the only poll that counts is the last one.

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