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How Quebec separatists snatched defeat from the jaws of victory

AFP. Pauline Marois, head of the Parti Quebecois

Though the separatist Parti Quebecois topped polls at the start of the campaign, the Liberal Party prevailed in provincial elections in Quebec on Monday. FRANCE 24 looks at the reasons for the defeat of the once-dominant sovereigntist party.


With almost all ballots counted, the Parti Quebecois came away with only 25.4 percent of the vote, against 41.5 percent for the anti-separatist Liberal Party.

It is the party’s poorest showing since its first election in 1970, and effectively eliminates the possibility of a new referendum on independence from Canada.

Pauline Marois, the Parti Quebecois leader, will step down as prime minister of Quebec, handing over the reins to Liberal Party leader Philippe Couillard.

In the wake of the results, analysts have weighed in on the reasons behind the ruling separatist party’s resounding defeat.

The referendum

The election in the mostly French-speaking province (four out of five Quebecers count French as their mother tongue) effectively turned into a referendum on whether to hold another vote on separating from Canada. In a first referendum in 1980, the separatist vote lost by almost 20 points, but a second referendum in 1995 saw them finishing just one point behind those who voted to remain a part of Canada.

Polls carried out before Monday’s election showed that roughly two-thirds of Quebecers did not want a third referendum on independence – a fact reflected in the results. Though Marois tried to re-focus her campaign on other issues, those efforts were hamstrung by media magnate and local candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau, who at a campaign appearance threw his fist in the air and declared that he hoped “to make Quebec a country”. The Liberal Party leapt on the statement and warned voters that the Parti Quebecois would force a referendum if they controlled the province.

Some pundits indeed saw Péladeau’s comment as the turning point in the election. “The raised fist of billionaire star candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau, awkwardly signifying revolutionary resistance and solidarity with the oppressed, was supposed to be the moment that clenched victory for Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois,” wrote Joseph Brean in Canada’s conservative daily National Post. “Instead, it marked the moment power began to slip from her grasp.”

The secularism charter

Another campaign issue that harmed the Parti Quebecois was their proposed secularism charter, which would have prohibited public sector employees from wearing visible religious symbols (the Muslim headscarf, the Jewish kippah or a big Christian cross) at work. Though the charter – which has frequently been compared to similar laws in France -- was popular in rural francophone regions, the Liberal Party strongly opposed it, labeling its proponents “xenophobic”.

That strategy seemed to pay off; when Marois suggested that those who did not comply with the rules set out by the charter could be fired from their jobs, her rivals accused her of promoting discrimination. The results of Monday’s election indicate that many voters agreed with them.

Personal attacks

The campaign leading up to Monday’s vote was marked by often virulent personal attacks, and pundits seemed to agree that Marois was the worst offender. The National Post went as far as to call it the “nastiest election campaign in decades”.

Among accusations that she hurled at Couillard were stashing money in an offshore account on the British island of Jersey (located off the coast of Normandy, France); cozying up to famously corrupt public figures in Canada and Saudi Arabia; and a lack of transparency as to why he left a prior position as Quebec’s minister of health.

In an editorial published before the election in French-language daily Journal de Québec, Pierre Simard, a professor at Quebec’s National School of Public Administration, wrote that “lies and suspicion triumphed over reality and facts” in the Parti Quebecois’s campaign. As the more aggressive candidate, Marois ended up paying the price for the nasty tone the campaign took on.

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