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The Economist assesses the Quebec election

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Politicians aren’t supposed to want summer elections. Voters are distracted and campaign workers are on vacation. Moreover, this year the Olympics are dominating the news.

But for Jean Charest, the unpopular Liberal premier of Quebec, an under-the-radar campaign represents his best chance of winning a fourth term. It was thus no surprise when, on Aug. 1, he called an election to be held on Sept. 4, long before the mandatory requirement of December 2013.

The rest of Canada will be watching closely. Although the Canadian economy has weathered the global recession well — it grew by 2.8 per cent between 2008 and 2011, compared with only 1.1 per cent in the United States — it owes its resilience mostly to the energy and commodity boom in the country’s four western provinces, where unemployment is only 5.5 per cent.

In contrast, the figure is 7.9 percent in the six eastern provinces, which rely on manufacturing and services, and 7.7 percent in Quebec. Home to nearly a quarter of Canada’s people, Quebec will test whether the country’s manufacturing base can recover, even as oil exports bolster the currency.

Charest has sought to hitch Quebec to the commodity bandwagon. Inspired by the success of a previous Liberal government’s hydroelectric project in the 1970s, he announced last year his own development plan for the province’s resource-rich north. The government hopes it will yield $80 billion of energy, mining and forestry investments. However, the scheme is set to take 25 years to unfold and the public has greeted it with a yawn.

The election will also decide if the dormant issue of separatism returns to the national agenda. Neither the Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper nor the leftist New Democratic Party, which became the official opposition after beating the Liberals in last year’s federal election, are active in Quebec’s provincial politics. Instead power has alternated between the Liberals, who want continued union with Canada, and the Parti Quebecois, which seeks independence for the Francophone province.

Polls show that Quebeckers’ appetite to reopen the debate over their status has dwindled since a referendum on independence was narrowly defeated in 1995. Charest staunchly supports staying in Canada, and warns that a separatist resurgence might harm the economy.

The PQ, however, continues to push for a split. Although it does not advocate a new referendum now, it will demand concessions from the national government for greater control over social and economic policy, along with the money to fund new projects.

"I don’t see how we can lose," PQ legislator Bernard Drainville told the local press. "If Quebec wins, it becomes stronger. If Quebec is rebuffed, the demonstration is made that there is a limit to our ability to progress in this country."

Charest must hope that voters focus more on his federalism than on his administration. The premier has timed the vote to occur shortly before the resumption of an inquiry into corruption in the construction industry. It is expected to reveal allegations of links between donations to the Liberals and contracts awarded by Charest’s government. Although no wrongdoing by the Liberals has yet been proven, the scandal has hurt the premier’s popularity. At 30 percent, his approval rating is tied for the lowest among Canada’s provincial leaders.

The result will probably be decided by two outside forces. The first is a protest that erupted earlier this year against Charest’s plan to increase university tuition fees. For four months students blocked streets and scuffled with police. Charest responded with a strict law requiring advance notice for public protests and fining groups blocking access to classrooms as much as $125,000 Canadian.

A majority of Quebeckers have backed the premier’s hard line. However, the PQ has embraced the students, even naming Leo Bureau-Blouin, one of their leaders, as a legislative candidate. The party hopes that this will boost turnout among often-apathetic 18-to-24-year-olds, who make up a tenth of the electorate. Moreover, Charest’s laws outraged civil libertarians in the province, which may benefit the PQ.

The demonstrators returned to the streets of Montreal on July 22, and are expected to resume their protests as the new school year begins at the height of the campaign. Even if the Liberals win, Charest may not survive, since his district has a large student population. He only barely held his seat in 2008.

The other wild card is the debut of a third party, the Coalition for the Future of Quebec. It was set up by PQ defector Francois Legault and banker Charles Sirois, and later absorbed a center-right party. The coalition combines economic conservatism with social liberalism. Although Legault has backed independence, the coalition promises to delay a referendum for a decade, to focus on the economy.

With only nine of the legislature’s 125 seats and a campaign budget no more than a quarter of the two main parties’, the coalition has little hope of victory. It could be a kingmaker, though, if neither of its rivals wins a majority.

In short, it may be up to Legault and Sirois to decide if Canada remains comfortably intact or threatens to splinter.

 

 

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