The Québec Surprise (or Was it a Surprise?)

I stayed up late last Monday night to follow the Quebec provincial election. Given that I don’t have cable TV, I had to follow the incoming results on the Web while listening (alternately) to the live feed from Radio-Canada or CBC Radio Montreal. The otherwise excellent website crashed spectacularly about an hour into the results coming in, thus why I alternated between French and English coverage.

Absolutely no one, including Gregory Morrow whose crystal ball is usually pretty clairvoyant, expected the spectacular rise of the right-leaning Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), which consistently ranked third in the polls right up to the eve of the election. Indeed, no one quite expected this:

Party Elected Vote Share
LIB 48 33.08%
ADQ 41 30.80%
PQ 36 28.32%
QS 0 3.65%
GRN 0 3.89%
OTH 0 0.26%

Through much of the evening, the ADQ was first in the “elected or leading” category in front of the incumbent Premier Charest’s Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ). By the time the PLQ took back a weak first place, Radio-Canada declared that Charest himself had lost his own seat in Sherbrooke, only to reverse its call an hour later. By the end of the evening, as a result of the first three-way race in recent memory, Québec had given itself its first minority government since 1878, with the Parti Québécois (PQ) finishing third in its worse showing in the popular vote since 1970.

Many political commentators are viewing the results as the end of the sovereignty movement in Québec and, combined with the unexpected 25% performance of the federal Conservatives during the 2006 federal election, as a major rightward shift of the Québec electorate. However, like many others, I believe that last Monday’s vote is the result of a far more complex convergence of circumstances whose impact has yet to sink in.

Particularly striking is the divide between the island of Montréal and the rest of Québec. Not only did the ADQ not win a single seat on the island, but it also obtained only half the popular vote that it received elsewhere in the province. However, this “big city versus elsewhere” phenomenon is not exclusive to Québec, although like just about everything else regarding Québec, the flavour of this divide in that province is distinct. Here in Nova Scotia, the political divide between Halifax versus the rest of the province is equally apparent. Similarly, in the last federal election, we saw how Canada’s three largest cities — Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver — did not elect a single Conservative (until Vancouver Kingsway MP David Emerson defected to the Conservatives shortly after being elected as a Liberal).

Equally if not more significant in Monday’s results in Québec is the electorate’s distaste for the dichotomy in which it has been forced for more than 30 years. By most accounts, the PLQ’s performance in government in the last four years was lacklustre. However, there was no taste for returning the PQ to power with its promise to hold another referendum on sovereignty which most agree would meet with failure. Tired of a simplistic either/or choice, the people of Québec saw in the ADQ’s autonomist position — vaguely defined as it is — as a safe place to park their vote, not to mention that the populist edge the PQ once enjoyed has now gone to the ADQ. For let’s be frank here: even though sovereignty is the PQ’s main plank, not everyone who ever voted PQ did so because they wanted “leur propre pays”. Recall that after the Yes side scored only 40% in the 1980 sovereignty referendum, the PQ went on to form a massive majority government the next year with about 49% of the popular vote.

Simply and uneloquently put, the judgement of the people of Québec last Monday was a blunt Fuck You to the two parties that have dominated provincial politics for over the last three decades. They needed to tell the PLQ that they thought it sucked lemons in the last four years, but they didn’t want to register their protest by ushering in a government fixated on sovereignty. I believe they voted for a change in the political paradigm; I’m not convinced they suddenly decided to embrace the ADQ’s (half-articulated) right-wing policies. But given that most polls showed the ADQ below the 30-percent mark and that it entered this election with only 5 seats at the dissolution of the legislature, many saw a vote for the ADQ as a safe vote: one that would express their dissatisfaction with the status quo, but one that was unlikely to lead to the ADQ forming the government.

Monday’s surprise is perhaps that more voters than expected followed the above line of reasoning once at the ballot box. Or, as some have suggested, perhaps many ADQ-leaning individuals who were polled stated they were undecided because they didn’t feel it “respectable” to say out loud that the favoured the ADQ. Others still are pointing out that an inherent flaw with phone polls today is that they only reach people with a land line.

As you may have guessed, though, given that I am a staunch supporter of proportional representation, I believe Monday’s surprise would have been lessened had PR been in place in the last decade. Unlike what Monday’s results seem to suggest, the ADQ did not come out of nowhere. In fact, by refusing to grant the ADQ official party status after the 2003 election because it hadn’t achieved 20% of the popular vote, the PLQ and PQ have arguably been the architects of this misperception. However, now that elections are three-way races in Québec, Monday results are pretty close to proportionality. In the past, Québec has had grossly overweighted majority governments, and as recently as 1998, it had a huge PQ majority when in fact the PLQ had won the popular vote. The way I was able to recalculate the 1998 results, there should have been a PQ minority at best (which admittedly demonstrates that even a proportional system would be imperfect, although certainly not as flawed as our current FPTP system).

2007 Election: Québec
Party Vote Share FPTP Seats MMP Seats
# % +/- % # % +/- %
LIB 33.08% 48 38.40% +5.32% 44 35.20% +2.12%
PQ 28.32% 36 28.80% +0.48% 38 30.40% +2.08%
ADQ 30.80% 41 32.80% +2.00% 40 32.00% +1.20%
PVQ 3.89% 0 0.00% -3.89% 2 1.60% -2.29%
QS 3.65% 0 0.00% -3.65% 1 0.80% -2.85%
OTH 0.26% 0 0.00% -0.26% 0 0.00% -0.26%
2003 Election: Québec
Party Vote Share FPTP Seats MMP Seats
# % +/- % # % +/- %
LIB 45.99% 76 60.80% +14.81% 59 47.20% +1.21%
PQ 33.24% 45 36.00% +2.76% 44 35.20% +1.96%
ADQ 18.18% 4 3.20% -14.98% 22 17.60% -0.58%
OTH 2.59% 0 0.00% -2.59% 0 0.00% -2.59%
1998 Election: Québec
Party Vote Share FPTP Seats MMP Seats
# % +/- % # % +/- %
LIB 43.55% 48 38.40% -5.15% 55 44.00% +0.45%
PQ 42.87% 76 60.80% +17.93% 57 45.60% +2.73%
ADQ 11.81% 1 0.80% -11.01% 13 10.40% -1.41%
OTH 1.76% 0 0.00% -1.76% 0 0.00% -1.76%

Notice that ADQ support has gone from 11.8% in 1998 to 18.2% in 2003 and 30.8% in 2007, for a net gain of 19%. For the PLQ, the downward difference between the 2003 and 2007 vote is about 13%. For its part, however, the PQ has dropped more than 14% between 1998 and 2007, and the ADQ gains over the years have been at the expense of both the PLQ and the PQ. The existing FPTP system has been hiding the trends that have been evident over the last decade when viewed through other lens.

Some may take issue with the allocation of 2 seats to the Greens (PVQ) and 1 seat to Québec Solidaire (QS) in 2007 given that they achieved less than 5% of the popular vote province-wide. However, it matters to bear in mind that the D’Hondt formula for proportional representation — which I explained several times before, most notably in this post — would divide a total geographical area into regions, with regional seats to be distributed by region. Hence the ADQ in Montreal/Laval, which obtained only 15.16% of the popular vote in 2007, would be awarded 4 regional seats instead of being shut out as it was on Monday, but the PVQ and QS, with 6.74% and 6.32% respectively in that region, would receive their regional seats for being well above the widely accepted 5% threshhold. Besides, surely 300,000 out of nearly 4,000,000 votes should yield more than nothing in the assembly.

Once again, I don’t pay much attention to naysayers of proportional representation whose chief arguments against it are that it would almost always lead to minority governments and would place more importance on parties for regional seats. It matters to look at the whole schematics (i.e., how regional seats would be assigned, fixed election dates, and the removal of confidence votes that would precipitate an election). In fact, to me, the strength of PR yielding mostly minority governments is that it would cease to hide the real trends under the veil of artificial majorities and be more stable than nearly seismic shifts to which FPTP is prone, all the while better expressing the will of the people.

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