This election cycle, from its announcement in early August to Tuesday’s victory celebrations, has been marked by a lack of both discussion of substantive issues, and a clear vision for Quebec’s future. Candidates have pandered to popular opinion and used identity politics to gain votes, often not backing their rhetoric with concrete policy.
Charest called the election for September 4 – two weeks before the Charbonneau Commission hearings into corruption and collusion are scheduled to resume – which will most likely shed new light on the actions of the Parti libéral du Québec (PLQ) over the last decade. Avoiding these potentially damning political consequences was not the only advantage of Charest’s timing: Quebec’s student movement, with its powerful anti-establishment sentiments, was in a lull during the summer months; electoral campaigning occurred in the absence of rigorous student criticism. Rather than addressing the systemic critiques by the student movement and its allies, candidates reasserted the primacy of language and identity politics.
Federalists and sovereigntists alike engendered fear amongst their followers: sovereigntists fear the decline of francophone culture within Quebec; federalists fear another independence referendum. Identity politics divides populations along ascriptive lines we cannot change – where we come from, the languages we speak, and the cultures we express. Parti Québécois (PQ) leader Pauline Marois’s comment, “we were here first,” apart from being wrong, turns political debate into us against them, and sidelines coherent and inclusive debate in favour of the politics of exclusion. Likewise, federalist parties stoked anglophone fears that a PQ win would result in harsh anti-anglo policies; in exceptional circumstances, these fears can translate into violence, as evidenced by the attack at the PQ election party on Tuesday night. By resorting to the age-old politics of identity, Quebec’s major political parties have placed sentiment and vote-winning above rational policy discussion.
The entire election campaign was characterized by irresponsible populist politics. From Marois donning a red square and promptly removing it as she tried to quickly calculate which of the pro- or anti-hike sides would gain her more votes, to Charest pushing to reopen a carcinogenic mine in Asbestos, candidates have buried the future of Quebec beneath their own personal interests. Plan Nord, the PLQ’s flagship policy, promises temporary jobs at the cost of irreversible environmental damage and reappropriation of indigenous land. When the mines are closed in twenty years, and the jobs gone, the stupidity of this short-term thinking will be clear for all to see.
This election, then, has been conducted by the establishment for the establishment. Coherent, rational, long-term thinking – the sort that takes the environment and youth interests into account – has been notably absent. At a time of worldwide economic crisis, with Quebec’s budget in tatters and corruption allegations everywhere, and in the wake of the largest student movement in North American history, the major parties are talking about the same issues they were in 1960. With an aging population, language and sovereigntist politics play well in Quebec, but are they really what this province should be most concerned with as it looks forward into the 21st century?