The big winner in Monday’s vote was the Coalition Avenir Quebec (Quebec Future Coalition), a right-of-center party founded in 2011 that surged to take 74 seats in the 125-seat assembly, defeating the incumbent Liberal Party, which came in a distant second.
The coalition is led by François Legault, a former Parti Quebecois politician and onetime airline executive who earlier renounced separation. He ran a populist campaign that was considered lackluster but included promises to cut taxes, curb immigration, and raise spending on health and education.
Legault called his party’s victory “historic,” ending the electoral battle between the separatist Parti Quebecois and the federalist Liberal Party that has long dominated politics in the largely French-speaking province, Canada’s second-most populous.
“There are many Quebecois who have set aside a debate that has divided us for 50 years,” Legault told supporters at a victory rally.
Although Legault has said that Quebec’s place remains in Canada, he is considered a Quebec nationalist who is likely to renew traditional claims for a transfer of powers from the federal government to the province. And he has vowed to cut immigration and force newcomers to learn French and pass a “values test” within three years of arrival or face expulsion, seen as a largely meaningless threat since Canada’s federal government is responsible for granting permanent residency and citizenship.
For the Parti Quebecois, whose popularity soared in the 1970s and 1980s and whose second independence referendum in 1995 came within a whisker of victory, Monday’s result was no less than catastrophic. (It also lost a separation referendum in 1980.)
“This is the worst outcome for the Parti Quebecois since its creation in 1968,” said Graham Fraser, a visiting professor at McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada and author of a party history. The party first fielded candidates in the 1970 provincial election and attracted 23 percent of the vote — and number that soared to almost 50 percent of the vote in 1981. On Monday it got just over 17 percent. The party held power as recently as 2014.
Fraser said that the problem for the Parti Quebecois is that “it failed to excite a younger generation. It has been the party of the baby boomer generation.” Quebecers have been influenced by the rise of President Trump, Britain’s experience with Brexit and Catalonia’s failed effort to separate from Spain, he said.
“It’s difficult to say that breaking away is peachy-keen easy when you see the situation in Catalonia,” Fraser said in an interview, calling it “complicated.”
The result also makes life more difficult for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Since assuming power in 2015, his fellow Liberals have lost power in Canada’s three most populous provinces — Ontario, British Columbia and now Quebec — and now face the prospect of a more fractious relationship with Quebec. But Trudeau told the news media Tuesday that he had congratulated the new Quebec premier, and they vowed to work together to build a stronger economy and “a better future for all of us.”
Valérie-Anne Mahéo, a political scientist at the University of Montreal, said that Quebec’s millennial voters no longer see the same social and economic inequalities between French and English speakers in Quebec that motivated their parents and grandparents to support the idea of a separate country.
“Millennials don’t see the necessity and the urgency of this project” of a sovereign Quebec, she said.
Yet many young voters turned in the elections to a left-wing party called Quebec Solidaire, which captured almost as many votes and more seats in the legislature than the Parti Quebecois. It also promotes separation but put more emphasis in its campaign on issues such as the environment.
Pollster Jean-Marc Leger said that the election result reflects the collapse of Quebec’s traditional parties, the Liberals and the Parti Quebecois, which together attracted only 42 percent of the total vote. “The majority of Quebecers voted for new parties,” Lege said.
And while he admits that the Parti Quebecois’s future is bleak, Leger says that separatism will continue to be a factor and that 35 percent or so of the public still backs breaking away from Canada. What has changed is that Quebec Solidaire has become the movement’s new standard-bearer.
“Separatism is still there. It’s a never-ending story,” Leger said.