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Why the Parti Quebecois Has Far From Won

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The PQ Facing Itself

So there you have it. The general elections are now a thing of the past and in a few days, Pauline Marois will become the first woman to occupy the position of prime minister in Quebec. Nearly 10 years after electoral defeat in 2003, this marks a return to power for a political party that has struggled, for a number of years, to win back the hearts of Quebecers and to clearly redefine its political path.

Yesterday's slim victory (less than 1 per cent difference with the PLQ, four more seats) has a bitter taste this morning, made even worse because of the sad and deplorable events at the Metropolis. This victory does not give the PQ the margin it needs to carry out its platform. And especially, yesterday's disappointing results reflect well the mood of a very unenthusiastic population and separatist electorate that are still struggling to see themselves as part of the party that will form the next government, despite nine years of Liberal rule. So, today, as it is called to take over, the PQ needs to do a preliminary political assessment.

Worn-out Democracy

Rarely has the dilapidated state of our democratic establishment appeared more clearly than it has during this election. Parties calling for "strategic voting," to "block" a party rather than elect another one, and carrying out campaigns based on fear, rather than appealing to our reason or convincing us of their platform's values. A campaign where blaming smaller parties became a sales pitch, rather than trying to understand the reasons why thousands of Quebecers decided to look elsewhere and find new leaders.

Elections where the major media organizations kept the voices of non-institutionalized political organizations from being heard, even as some of their representatives shone by their absence in the debates organized by the major networks, despite the fact that they were represented in our National Assembly. And especially an election that elected a party that, despite having been rejected by close to 70 per cent of the population, will be able to exercise, either fully or partially, the reality of power in the coming months...

In 1970, the Parti Québécois made a formal commitment, in its election platform, to reform the voting system and our institutions by explicitly giving more weight to proportionality. There was a commitment to reforming this system that René Lévesque himself considered appalling, so that it would be more representative of the popular will, expressed through voting. Forty-two years later, and despite having spent 18 years in power, not only has the PQ never reformed this outdated voting system, but election reform has even been officially eliminated from its election platform, deferring instead to a commission charged with continuing the work already done by the Commission formerly led by Jean-Pierre Charbonneau. What would be needed, however, to finally come to the end of the issue, would be the political courage to apply its conclusions...

There was something tragic about seeing the PQ make voters feel guilty about choosing to support Québec Solidaire or Option Nationale. They were accused of helping Jean Charest or François Legault's campaigns, or of hurting the cause of Quebec independence, and there was no effort to understand the profound reasons for their political choices. No one leaves a political party without a heavy heart, especially when starting down the long Damascus road of forming a "third party" in our British bipartisan system.

The PQ needs to understand that at a moment where public opinion is not split between two opinions, but spread across a political spectrum that covers a number of issues and preoccupations (of which yesterday's results is a brilliant illustration), it would have been to their advantage to favour a voting reform that would have given representation to the other progressive and separatist political groups.

That would have been, in my opinion, a clear sign of maturity and a strong message sent to the citizens of Quebec: your vote counts! A strong message sent to Quebecers to tell them that our National Assembly will no longer be an arena for pitiful partisan games, but will be capably led by a governmental coalition uniting Parti Québécois, Solidaire or Opinion members alike.

At a time when profound social and political change is needed, how is it even possible to impose any one vision and rely on a short period of supposed "popular legitimacy" when 68 per cent of Quebecers have, in reality, turned their backs on the new government? Election reform seems even more necessary today than it was before. Our democracy and the normal evolution of our institutions have been ready for it for a long time.

The Obligation not to Disappoint

After a month-long campaign which sent out sometimes contradictory messages, (was it an election against Charest, an election pitting progressives against conservatives, or a vote in favour of independence?) and with somewhat conflicting commitments (asbestos, referendums on grassroots initiatives, etc.), the PQ will have to show a lot of confidence if it is to survive in a minority position. The latest federal situation showed us that confidence and determination, much more than moderation and cooperation, are the best weapons when facing an opposition that is certainly in the majority, but is also often cautious to defeat the government and send the population back to the voting booths. Even though everyone is quick to parade around flexing their muscles, no one wants the awful responsibility of explaining to voters why parliament is dysfunctional... Like Danton once said, what the PQ needs is audacity, more audacity, and ever more audacity!

Since Lucien Bouchard's government, PQ support has slowly whittled away, election by election, year by year. From nearly 43 per cent in 1998, they were at 35 per cent in 2008, after a low of 28 per cent in 2007. Yesterday, Pauline Marois' party received 31.94 per cent of the vote. Lucien Bouchard's application of a 0 deficit policy caused a slow migration of a number of left-wing voters towards the UFP and l'Option Citoyenne, which would merge to give birth to Québec Solidaire, who succeeded in defeating Nicolas Girard in Gouin.

The PQ's ambiguity on the national question ("winning conditions," "moral assurance of winning," "separatist government") prompted a number of militants to leave, these "caribous" François Legault mentioned, who found a new forum with Option Nationale. All these people didn't come home on September 4, and the only things the PQ could count on for victory was a split in the federalist vote and the weariness of the population. It will take more than the repetition of a few incantations for the PQ to rebuild, little by little, a larger electoral base; if they don't change and try to understand the motivations of separatists who've left the fold, the PQ will be doomed to be in competition with QS and ON in the coming months and years.

They have one card left to play. If Pauline Marois were to unambiguously reconnect with the social-democratic roots of her party, rather than limiting herself to a well-meaning rigorous centrist line; if the PQ were in spite of it all to engage in the pedagogy of independence, instead of starting a referendum process; if the PQ could ignore egotistic considerations of numbers of seats to finally get beyond cosmetic changes (fixed-date elections, reduction of contributions) and propose a rebuilding of our democratic system; yes, if they did all that, it could breathe new life into the PQ. Especially, the determination and commitment of the new prime minister on a number of issues could quickly allow her to lay the political groundwork for a campaign in which she could obtain the parliamentary majority she lacks today.

Too many times, the PQ has disappointed the population and those who had placed their hope in their actions. Too many times, partisan politics and excessive prudence weakened its political momentum. The PQ has the duty not to disappoint and this will be an even more difficult task as a minority government. If it was to once again fall short of its commitments or go back on its fundamental principles, it would suffer the same fate as Daniel Johnson's Union Nationale, who slowly disappeared from our political landscape after a brief and fleeting increase in momentum. Today, the PQ is alone, facing itself.

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