A guide to Quebec elections for people from elsewhere

by Alan Cohen

***Note: I’m asking my Quebec friends to summarize their political views in the comments section, so others can get a sense. Check back later if you click on this before they’ve had a chance to post!***

Quebec is holding provincial elections next Tuesday, and politics here are quite interesting, so I thought I’d post a little summary for people who may not be from here. While the population here (~8 million) is smaller than that of my home state of Michigan (~10 million), there is a distinct sense of identity, and many people here consider Quebec to be essentially a separate country. In addition, Quebec is almost 1/4 of the Canadian population, so this feels more like a national than a provincial election. Combined with the unique local dynamics, politics are much more interesting here than they ever were in Michigan.

The primary interesting factor here is that, while people in most places fall along a left-right political spectrum, people here also fall along a sovereignist-federalist political spectrum. (Sovereignists think Quebec should be (or is) an independent country, federalists view it as part of Canada.) This complicates things enormously because, instead of two parties to represent the poles, there should be four. But a four-party system is unstable in most forms of democracy, so things get complicated…

In most places, like Canada as a whole and the US, there are multiple political “axes” that can be theoretically independent – social liberalism versus traditionalism, law and order versus civil liberties, and social welfare versus free market. There’s no reason in theory that someone couldn’t be socially conservative, favor lots of welfare programs, and be moderate on civil liberties. In practice, however, these potentially different axes tend to line up with each other: people who favor law and order also usually favor social conservatism and free market policies, for example. Thus, using the “Vote Compass” tool available in Canada, we see that even when we use two different axes, all the main parties fall along one line:

With the exception of libertarians, most voters are served relatively well by this right-left axis: there’s almost no one in the upper right or lower left corners of this graph, for example. But the same is not true for the sovereignists in Quebec. There are right-wing sovereignists and left-wing sovereignists, right-wing federalists and left-wing federalists. The Vote Compass tool for Quebec shows the parties a bit more spread out:

(In this figure, the horizontal axis represents all of the normal right-left axes together, with right at the right and left at the left. The vertical axis is “identity,” with the top being for sovereignty and the bottom for federalism.) Most of the parties still fall along a northwest-southeast axis, but the correlation is much less tight. And the parties don’t really represent the people: There are actually a fair number of voters in the upper right and lower left quadrants, even if there are not parties that represent them.

The problem is that in most winner-take-all voting systems, such as exists in Quebec, Canada, and the US, multi-party voting systems are not stable. For an excellent and amusing video explaining why, see here. And then see what to do about it here. So in effect, there are two main parties in Quebec, the Liberals and the Parti Quebeçois or PQ. The Liberals are center-right and strongly federalist, the PQ is left and sovereignist.

(Quebec is MUCH more left-leaning than the US – the Liberals are about at the same place on the right-left spectrum as the Democrats in the US. “Right-wing” in Quebec means thinking that there might be some limits to social welfare, and that it’s possible to imagine a tax burden high enough to stifle economic growth, without specifying what those limits might be. Similar to how, in the US, “left-wing” means thinking that there might be some role for government in public life, that it’s possible to imagine a reasonable law restricting the use of firearms, and that a policy of immediate execution for illegal immigrants might be slightly unreasonable.)

The Liberals have been in power since 2003, and are widely considered corrupt, with ties to the mafia in relation to public construction contracts, among other things. The PQ as well, though not seen as being as corrupt as the Liberals, do not have a great reputation for honesty and competence. So even the voters who find themselves aligned relatively well with these two parties along the political axes don’t really like them very much.

The combination of dislike for the main parties and poor representation of the political “axis space” represented in the figures above means that the current two-party system is highly unstable. People are forced to vote strategically, but don’t like the two main options. What this means is that an upstart party will fare poorly in the polls at first, but as soon as it starts to gain a bit, everyone who has been waiting to jump ship from the traditional parties will start, and as the polls improve, more and more people will think this feasible, with a positive feedback effect that can quickly change the dynamics of the election.

In fact, this is what happened a year ago in Canada, with the formerly marginal left-wing NDP surging and replacing the center-left Liberals and the sovereignist Bloc Quebecois in many areas to become the official opposition. It is also what appears to be happening now in Quebec. The upstart CAQ (Coalition Avenir Quebec, or Coalition for the future of Quebec) has taken a relatively neutral position on sovereignty, is pro-business and growth, and anti-corruption. It is siphoning off votes from the Liberals (anyone federalist or toward the right of the spectrum that was fed up with the corruption) and to a lesser extent from the PQ (anyone not adamantly sovereignist). The CAQ is still in third place in the poll averages and projections, but has overtaken the Liberals in some polls and has clear momentum. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them win a major victory in an upset on election day.

At the same time, PQ is being challenged from further left by Quebec Solidaire, and from the extreme sovereignists by Option Nationale. While these two new, upstart parties don’t seem to present much immediate threat, Quebec Solidaire at least has been showing increasing popularity, with one of its leaders widely considered to have won the recent debate. My guess is that if people weren’t voting strategically, Quebec Solidaire would be doing as well or better than the PQ, and the PQ better watch out in the next election, even if Quebec Solidaire only rounds up 5-10% of the vote and 1-2 seats this time.

Identity politics

One aspect of Quebec politics that may be hard for outsiders to understand is the role of identity, which is wrapped up with sovereignty questions, but also with immigration policy and language policy. Most people here, including federalists and anglophones (and me) believe that Quebec has a culture distinct from the rest of Canada, largely due to the French language and the heritage that goes with it. Most people (again including federalists and anglophones) also believe that a small French-speaking enclave in North America is in danger of being swallowed linguistically and culturally by all of the anglophone culture around it. Sovereignists believe that a separate country is the solution, federalists do not. Most people feel some degree of protection for the French language needs to be legislated, but the details are always controversial.

Currently “Bill 101” protects the French language in many ways: everything from forcing francophones and immigrants to send their kids to French-language schools rather than English language schools, to legislating that French language must appear on all signs outside stores in a larger font than English (even in traditionally English-speaking communities), to imposing quotas for immigrants from French speaking countries. (Quebec has a parallel immigration system, so immigrants here need to be approved by two governments rather than by one, as in the rest of Canada.)

Quebec is one of the least xenophobic places I’ve lived in, but, like everywhere, there are some anti-immigrant and anti-“other” sentiments here, and the language and identity politics is always at risk of getting these things mixed up. Is a proposed law banning public-sector employees from wearing hijabs at work a way to protect Quebec culture and maintain a secular state, or is it a way of saying to certain groups, “We don’t like you and we don’t want you to be part of our society”? It is both, but though maybe only one or the other for many people. So the feeling of being part of a threatened culture exacerbates anti-“other” tendencies, but is counter-balanced by a general openness of spirit and lack of hostility to other groups on the part of most people.

In my opinion, there is reason to the idea that the language and culture here need some degree of protection, but most of the proposed policies are largely symbolic and will not be very effective. It would be good for government leaders to consult neutral, external linguists for ideas on what might actually work – I don’t think legislating font sizes makes any difference at all, other than to create resentment in minority communities and a sense of accomplishment for those who passed the law. But this is all perhaps for another post…

Anyway, next Tuesday we should have some interesting results. I’m really hoping that my Quebec friends will post their reactions below: Am I right in my take on Quebec politics? What did I miss? Who are you voting for and why? Are you sovereignist or federalist, and why? How do you feel about Quebec identity? I’m looking forward to your reactions!