Wow, the NDP swept Quebec and nobody saw it coming, at least not to that extent. In my opinion, these huge gains by the NDP say more about Quebec’s relationship with the other parties than with Layton’s. Since “les commandites”, or sponsorship scandal Liberals are a no factor in Quebec Politics. Until now, they have been surviving because of strong support by some ethnic minorities and Anglophones in Montreal. Within francophone media and regions, they were still associated with corruption and intents of crushing Quebec’s right to self determination (law on clarity, sponsorship scandals). Bringing Jean Chrétien in the campaign was not very constructive either, just reinforcing a more of the same image.
Harper’s conservatives have tried to “win” Quebec during last two elections, but let that strategy go this time around to focus on Ontario, which worked well for him. Since Lévesque’s “Beau Risque” with Mulroney in the 80s, Conservatives never had any real support in Quebec. Basically, Conservatives clash with most social democrat consensus established in the province: a soft approach on crime, critical view of military actions, commitment to social justice and limited inequalities, support for culture as in crucial element of identity, progressive taxation. Even though, these general political values have been challenged by a right wing minority, especially in the Quebec City region, they still form core values of Quebec society. Furthermore, Conservative undemocratic tendencies have been widely covered by Quebec media. At the end of the day, they only got 16% of the vote in the province.
The Bloc is clearly the biggest loser. Most NDP votes came from Duceppe’s party. I believe most people who switched to NDP did not see it coming either. Duceppe has been in Ottawa forever, his party is now perceived as an old party, just like the liberals. A kind of “malaise” was always associated with the Bloc, even in sovereignist circles, since if independence was to happen one day, it will happen in Quebec City, not in Ottawa. For many elections, people voted Bloc lacking option more than out of conviction. Seeing that the NDP could actually win a few seats, many (a mean many) voters abandoned the Bloc. Duceppe and his MPs did not have a great campaign either, they were perceived as tired, “bitchy” and quite negative.
So why vote for the NDP then? In my humble opinion, most people just gave it a shot. In the last decade, cynicism has dominated politics. The provincial government (liberal) is mediocre, seen as incompetent, if not corrupted. At the federal level, Quebecois have been voting for the Bloc for 20 years without any concrete change in Quebec status within Confederation, nor did it stop right wing conservatives to take power. So the NDP seems like the only change available. They made a positive campaign, differentiating themselves for bickering and personal attacks widespread with Bloc and Conservative strategies. Jack Layton is perceived as “un bon jack”, an expression meaning that some one is a good, pleasant person. The same can be said about Thomas Mulcair (NDP’s only MP until yesterday), who is highly respected, notably for renouncing a minister position to protest some of Premier Charest’s politics. Joined all this to the fact that NDP’s values tend to fit Quebec’s social democratic tendency and you get part of the explanation for the orange wave. In a few words, a vast number of Quebecois voted primarily for change and new faces. Even though the NDP is an old party, it is not perceived as such in Quebec.
What now? Traditionally, the NDP has had hard time in Quebec for its failure to accommodate Quebec’s demands for autonomy, clearly conflicting with NDP’s centralizing tendency. It still seems to be NDP’s biggest challenge, along the fact that many of MPs are inexperienced. Now with its majority of MPs from Quebec, Layton will have the obligation to precise his vision of Quebec-Ottawa relations. It will be very interesting to see how he will attempt to negotiate this tension between respecting Quebec desire for provincial autonomy and NDP internal culture. The latter will have to change and adapt, or this whole wave will disappeared as fast as it came. Remember that a significant portion of the vote came from electors that had previously voted for the Bloc, defending independence and Quebec’s autonomy at all cost.
What about the Bloc? For now, it seems it had disappeared from the map. Its survival will probably depend on the NDP’s performance. If they convince Quebecois they can defend their interests in Ottawa, the Bloc will not come back. The real issue however, is what does it mean for the separatist movement? As many times before, many already announced the death of separatism. I strongly disagree with this widespread position. Quite the contrary, I believe the next four years could see separatism return to Quebec politics. First of all, we have a majority conservative government, with extremely little representation in Quebec. If Harper decides to radically reform our country under right wing principles, this could create a huge backlash in Quebec. Harper could become the best thing that ever happened to separatism. Secondly, the PQ is likely to form the next provincial government, considering how unpopular Liberals are and it will benefit from militants and resources until now used by the Bloc. This could engender even more conflict with Harper. Thirdly voting massively for the NDP could be interpreted as giving another chance to the Canadian experience. For most Quebecois (even federalists), Canada as it is does not work. Quebec has not signed the 1982 constitution, money is in Ottawa while needs are in the provinces (education, health care), and Trudeau’s dream of a bilingual country was a total failure. So, if Layton and his party come to be perceived as inadequate, just are Liberals and Conservatives, then what hope Quebecois will have for their place in Canada? As we say “ça passe ou ça casse”.