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Liberals Couldn't Win It All in Quebec

Just a week ago, on December 8, Quebecers were called to the polls. They reelected PM Jean Charest, from the Liberal Party, for a third term. But what do these results mean? Let's take a look (63 seats are needed for a majority):

Liberals (centrist federalist): 66 seats (42.05%)
PQ (centre-left sovereigntist): 51 seats (35.15%)
ADQ (centre-right federalist): 7 seats (16.35%)
QS (far-left sovereigntist): 1 seat (3.79%)

At first glance, one could conclude that Mr. Charest won his bet. He was able to boost his party's popularity by 9% compared to the 2007 results. These numbers got him almost 20 new seats and of course, a majority government. Plain and simple: Mr. Charest won't have to barter for the support of either the PQ or the ADQ for the survival of his government, as was the case in the former minority government.

Anywhere else in the world, this would be called a victory. ... But here again, this is Quebec.

If you had been sitting in the ballroom where Liberals gathered to celebrate the results, you would have been able to hear mosquitoes fly (never mind the fact that mosquitoes are all dead come December). Up until the last moment, Mr. Charest's top operatives had hopes for 75 to 80 seats. They wanted not only a majority government, but a strong one to top it all off. The polls that came out in the last week of the campaign mostly suggested such a scenario. However, nobody in the Liberal Party saw the surge in support for the PQ in the last few days of the campaign. And it almost cost them their majority.

So despite having suffered a defeat, PQ officials read into the 2008 results some encouraging signs, even calling the defeat a "moral victory." Indeed, had you been sitting in the ballroom where PQ militants gathered to celebrate the results, you truly would have believed yourself to be sitting in the winning party's room. Some have called this enthusiasm a little bit hubristic, but none could deny that the PQ effectively stopped the slide in public support that it had been suffering since 1998.

That year, the PQ got 42.87% of public support, in 2003 it went down to 33.24% and it got to an historical low of 28.35% just last year, in 2007. At 35%, the PQ is back in business and it can certainly hope for a government mandate in 4 years. PQ militants did have reasons to celebrate last Monday.

But the main narrative of these results isn't the slim victory of the Liberals or the moral victory for the PQ; it is the hellish downward spiral in which the ADQ is plunged right now. At 16.35% in public support with 7 seats, the ADQ is in the exact opposite situation that the PQ is in. In 2007, the ADQ, under the leadership of Mario Dumont, got to an historical high of 31% of support, winning them 41 seats. Last Monday, the ADQ got only half of what it had in 2007. And Mr. Dumont, who was the most popular politician in Quebec a little bit less than 2 years ago, resigned in the face of these grim results.

What happened in just 18 months?

First, the image of a "one-man-show" stuck to the ADQ. The weakness of the ADQ team strongly contrasted with Mr. Dumont's apparent strength, therefore reinforcing the idea that as good as Mr. Dumont was, he was the sole player on his team. Second, Mr. Dumont's ability to channel public anger towards the government did not compute this time around. In 2007, the public rage over "reasonable accommodations" awarded to ethnic groups translated into growing popularity for Mr. Dumont and his party. This time around, voters did not have a ballot issue on which the ADQ was able to play.

Third, the issues that Mr. Dumont put forward in 2007 such as families and the defense of the Quebecer identity are now strongly attached to the PLQ and the PQ's electoral programs. Indeed, even Mr. Charest, the former leader of the Progressive-Conservative Party of Canada, was able to reinvent himself as a nationalist. Between a PQ that advocates for independence and a PLQ that is now playing the nationalist card, there simply was not that much room left for Mr. Dumont's grassroots nationalism.

Overall though, the ADQ's demise was caused more by ADQ supporters who stayed home last Monday than by the PQ or the PLQ stealing them away. Among those who voted for the ADQ in 2007 who did not repeat their gesture, about half chose the PLQ and half chose the PQ. My guess is, these nationalist voters who were hesitating between the PQ and the ADQ were mobilized to vote for the PQ as a nationalist response to the "separatist-bashing" and "Quebec-bashing" that unleashed its fury in western Canada in the last few weeks.

Mr. Harper will never acknowledge this, of course, but he may have been the PQ's strongest ally on December 8 by stirring up anti-Quebec feelings in the ROC (Rest of Canada).