09/06/2012 08:59 EDT | Updated 11/06/2012 05:12 EST

Will the PQ Win Light a Fire Under Harper?


With Jean Charest's resignation as leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, any arrangement between the Liberals and François Legault's CAQ to form a government now appears highly unlikely, if it didn't seem so even before Charest stepped down. That means that the PQ is set to govern Quebec at least for the next several months.

The results of last night's election -- the Liberals falling just two riding-level victories away from having the right to take the first crack at forming a government and coming in well under one percentage point behind the PQ in popular vote -- will certainly limit the PQ's ability to advance the "sovereigntist governance" it campaigned on.

Yet with the support of Québec solidaire's two MNAs and just seven of the CAQ's 19 elected officials, Marois has a working majority.

The fact remains that we have much to discover about possible divisions within the CAQ's own caucus on issues such as sovereignty, language laws and decentralization of power within the Canadian federation. Because of this, the Canadian government should proceed with caution and not arrogance in its dealings with the Quebec National Assembly.

The fact that the CAQ failed to elect a single member on the island of Montreal and came at least 10,000 votes behind the Liberal candidate in virtually every riding that went Liberal is an indication that the CAQ's bastion of support cannot be anglophones. This will only increase the likelihood that the CAQ will vote with the PQ on certain issues.

Taking all of this into account, on the federal scene there have been winners and losers. Seeing as the above suggests that controversial measures are likely to emerge at least in some form from the Quebec National Assembly, Thomas Mulcair's NDP are likely to be asked frequently to weigh in on such issues. The NDP holds 58 of Quebec's 75 seats in Parliament.

That's bad news for Mulcair, who has a balancing act of his own to take care of. Much like the CAQ, Mulcair's party -- due to the electoral strategy that he himself championed -- is a coalition of federalists and sovereigntists. The NDP's 30-point rise in Quebec between 2008 and 2011 was half at the expense of the Bloc Québécois and half at the expense of both the federal Grits and Tories.

Current NDP MPs -- including former interim leader Nycole Turmel -- have publicly supported the sovereigntist Québec solidaire. Daniel Breton, an NDP candidate in the 2008 federal election, was just elected as a PQ MNA in these provincial elections. Yet Mulcair leads a nominally federalist party. His stances (or lack thereof) on issues of importance to Quebec could cause the coalition he built to fall apart.

The federal Liberals stand to gain from the provincial result for two reasons. First, the dynamic described above in which the NDP's coalition may break apart will mean that clarity will be sought on the national question by Quebecers fed up with Mulcair's possible treading of a fine line. The Grits -- being the most unambiguously federalist party -- stand to gain the most (along with the Bloc Québécois) from this.

Second, the presence of two simultaneous Liberal leadership races (both federal and provincial) is bound to create renewed interest in the future of how federalism is expressed and envisioned in Quebec. In other words, excitement surrounding these two contests could expedite a possible NDP decline in Quebec.

Finally, the Conservatives now have an opportunity to advance a vision that they have consistently championed since Diefenbaker -- decentralization of power.

Replying a flat-out "no" to the PQ's upcoming demands for more power for Quebec is more likely to provoke a nationalist sentiment in Quebec than not, simply because Harper's winning coalition in the 2011 election didn't include Quebec. In other words, Harper has far less flexibility vis-à-vis separatist governments in Quebec than Trudeau and Chrétien had.

Yet indulging the PQ will cause Harper's party much harm in its conservative political heartland. The Tories' base has no patience for appeasing separatists, particularly given the Harper government's recognition of the Québécois as a nation and its big-spending ways -- analogous moves to those that caused the 1990s-era decline of the PCs in the West in favour of the Reform Party. The only way these actions would be tolerated in suburban Ontario and the West would be through reciprocity.

Put differently, Harper would have to hand out goodies to nearly every province in order to keep both the separatists content until a snap election is forced in Quebec and to maintain his own electoral coalition. The Supreme Court's relatively recent ruling on the unconstitutionality of a national securities regulator could ironically be used as reasonable grounds for further devolution of power in practical terms.

Therefore, paradoxically, the PQ's minority win gives Stephen Harper a small window to advance a new vision for Canadian federalism and therefore unite a polarized Confederation along the lines of a common direction.

A large part of Harper's legacy will depend on whether he is now able to shake his habit of cold calculation, patience and laissez-faire attitude toward the provinces -- a habit that has given him great political success but has resulted in inaction (e.g. failure to address health care reform head on) at the expense of his party's founding values and to the detriment of national unity.