We have covered it in C&E Canada and the media in Quebec (as well as in the rest of Canada) have extensively tried to analyse it. On May 2nd2011, the “orange wave” provided the NDP with 59 MPs from the province and propelled the party to the status of Official Opposition in the House of Commons. If this result could not prevent the Conservatives from forming a majority government in Canada (which is the main reason Quebecers said they voted for Jack Layton’s troops, outside of the leader’s personal appeal), it has without a doubt shaken Quebec’s own political world. Some have since been questioning the strength of the Independentist movement and the traditional polarization on the constitutional question which prevailed on the provincial scene dating back to the election of a Parti Québécois provincial government in 1976 and on the federal level since the creation of the Bloc Québécois in 1991.

Related in some ways to the federal elections’ results but not entirely tributary of them, the “political offer” seems to be exploding in Quebec. If two new parties were founded in the last year (a clear sign of realignment of the forces), it is also the movements of troops (MPs, political operatives, talking heads, etc.) from their usual stance or organizations that has blurred the Quebec political universe. The left-right axis is not clearly defined in the province because the independence-federalism axis has been the main dimension of comparison until now. Recent events have forced observers to question the importance of the national debate.

Elected for a second time as a majority government in 2008, Jean Charest’s Liberals can lawfully stay in power until December 2013, but few observers think they will. More and more clues point towards the Premier triggering elections in 2012 and the new parties, as well as the old ones, are trying to prepare for this possibility. As elections are looming in Quebec and as the fog of war is getting thicker every day, here is a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Liberal Party of Quebec (LPQ), the Parti Québécois (PQ), the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) currently in the process of swallowing what remains of the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), Québec Solidaire (QS) and Option Nationale (ON), as well as some food for thought for each of them regarding the strategy they should prioritize to at least survive and, wishfully for them, obtain good results in the upcoming contest. For the sake of this article, only the parties with representatives in Quebec’s National Assembly were taken into consideration.

Liberal Party of Quebec (LPQ)

In a context of great political turmoil, the Liberal leader, Jean Charest, still has one of the main advantages the Quebec electoral system can provide, which is the power to trigger elections and therefore heading towards them with at least some control over the agenda. Some thought he would do so as early as 2011 to try to prevent François Legault’s new coalition (CAQ) to become a party in time to participate. Since Charest decided not to push the button, he now has to wait until Legault weakens in the polls before hoping to compete with him. If there were some discussions about Charest’s leadership over the last years, he seems to be ready to defend his government and that is great news for the Liberals, since the Premier is quite a campaigner and probably one of its party’s best strategist. The other advantage of the LPQ is the strong support it enjoys in the anglophone and allophone populations, who account for a handful of sure ridings, mainly in the Montreal, Gatineau and Sherbrooke areas.

If the Liberals are in charge at Quebec’s National Assembly, they are certainly not in the public opinion. Various scandals have plagued the government in the last years, from the construction industry to the judges nominating process, and from shale gas exploration to childcare. If, in politics, perception is reality, than the LPQ has a lot to worry about. Many say the government will try to gear into election mode before the Charbonneau Commission (which will investigate the construction industry) starts to hold its hearings. The problem for Charest is that more and more Ministers are leaving office (some to work in sensitive sectors related to scandals) and that, after being in power since 2003, it is difficult for him to recruit new talent and assure them they have a bright political future in the short term.

If the Liberal political machine is well oiled and well financed, it still has to run on something. The LPQ should start by focusing on an economic plan for the future that underscores the fact that Quebec was not hit by the crisis as much as the neighbouring United States and put forward a continuing vision for prosperity. Instead of legacy building using the Plan Nord, Jean Charest should concentrate, first and foremost, on explaining to Quebecers why they are better off with his stable government than with the bickering opposition. He should continue linking the PQ and the CAQ as two faces of the same option (independence) while at the same time underscoring Legault flaws as a Minister and as a party leader. Charest also desperately needs new credible French-Canadian surrogates in order to break through the majority of Quebec’s ridings where anglophones and allophones cannot influence the results and where his (to be defined) economic plan would pay off a lot more than his federalist stance.

Parti Québécois

Since becoming leader of the PQ in 2007, Pauline Marois has worked hard to put the party back in political shape. The Parti Québécois can count on a strong membership in almost all of the province’s ridings and on solid local organizations in every region. The PQ also came back from an important deficit and can now compete financially (although not on equal grounds) with the LPQ and face an election not worrying about every cent. If it is sometimes an electoral liability, the cause of Quebec’s independence provides a fervent base and volunteers who are devoted to the project, but sometimes less to the establishment. If the parliamentary wing of the PQ did not capitalize enough on the scandals surrounding the Liberal government, it shed light on a lot of problems and can count on some good elements of the next generation.

Pauline Marois thought (or certainly hoped) she could finally put 2011’s annus horribilis behind her, but it seems she is not done with intra-party fights just yet. If polls show that she is not personally popular, her image is also tarnished by the continual fighting within the PQ (which has taken a critical turn last year), and the never-ending debates on how to better promote Quebec’s independence. It is difficult to inspire leadership when people are not sure in what direction they are being taken and whether the ship is run tight. More profound than the party’s problems is the real questioning about the feasibility of Quebec’s independence in the short term… or at all. When the core of a whole movement is shattered, it takes more than hiring a good communication team to solve the situation.

If the PQ wants to survive the next election cycle, it needs to stop focusing on the vehicle and its flaws and more on the cause and its content. Pauline Marois must tell the members she will stay until she can be judged on electoral results and not before. Anybody challenging her must face a clear choice: swallow political ambitions for now and work with the team, or step out of the party, at least for a while. The PQ also needs to make a better job at tying Charest and Legault together as federalists and position itself as the only nationalist force. More than just promoting Quebec’s independence as a dream, the PQ has to make sure identity questions are at the forefront of the political discussion and has to explain how a nationalist government would do a better day-to-day job for the province from Day One, and eventually as a state government.

Coalition Avenir Québec (Action démocratique du Québec)

The new operation François Legault started with businessman Charles Sirois recently transitioned from a platform to reflect on Quebec’s society to a much-awaited political party. It has since led the polls, riding a favourable popular wave resulting from a mix of rejection of the traditional parties, an anti-establishment sentiment, a will to look further than the independence-federalism debate and the quest for a strong leader. Even if the CAQ is a new party, it can already rely on money and talent, mainly from old networks Legault tapped into in the process (ex-political operatives from the LPQ, the PQ and federal parties, the structure of the ADQ the CAQ is currently co-opting, connexions in the corporate world, etc.). As these lines are written, the party’s parliamentary wing will soon rise on the ashes of the ADQ (with some additions of PQ or independent provenance). Making all these moves, the CAQ looks like an organization that is ready to do what it takes to win the next election.

As much as the coalition of various interests can provide a cradle for victory, it can also tie the hands of its leaders, and that is what François Legault seems to be experiencing at the moment. He has difficulties taking sides on existing issues and clearly defining his party’s own vision for the future. These hesitations could have people doubt his capacity to make the tough decisions needed in the current political and economical context. Working hard raiding its adversaries (his new colleagues could become liabilities: they did not hesitate to jump ship to join him, and could do so again if things do not turn out how they had envisioned), the CAQ seems to lack time to create an operation faithful to its leader, his strategy and his close circle. If some long-time allies of Legault decided to join the CAQ, most of them have little political and/or campaign experience. For Legault to rely too heavily on an NDP-style wave is a great risk and wishing for it to happen too often prevents politicians from working hard enough to ensure a solid victory.

While Jean Charest will try to wait and see if Legault makes mistakes, the latter’s troops need to be all over the place but still efficient. The CAQ has to clarify its vision for the province, detail the concrete actions it would take as the new government and take a strong stand on Quebec’s main hot topics. Legault also needs to surround himself with fresh faces from various backgrounds and show that people are ready to step up publicly and join him. He must give candidates and surrogates all across Quebec latitude as well as ice time for them to become effective politically. If the CAQ wants to depict Legault as a statesman, it must position him as the captain of a real team, as a politician with a real game plan and as a man with true principles. The CAQ must learn sooner than later that building a durable party is a lot of blood, sweat and tears, as Winston Churchill would put it.

Québec Solidaire

Amir Khadir is QS’s only MP in Quebec’s National Assembly, but his efficiency in creating a constant buzz around him (through controversy, out-of-the-box political tactics and legislative hard work) has made him an important political player. Since he and Françoise David (Khadir’s co-leader in QS’s unique institution) never served in government, they are perceived as “cleaner” and less corrupt politicians by the population in general (and by the younger political activists in particular), which provides them with a base of uncompromising devotees. Ideologically close to the NDP and sharing some operatives and ideologues with the federal party, Québec Solidaire could benefit from Jack Layton’s party surge, first through the jobs it provided to some of their long-time volunteers and possibly by aligning itself with New Democrats.

Even if a lot of work has been done since the party was founded by various groups from the left fringes of Quebec’s political spectrum, QS is still out of the mainstream and probably proud of that fact. If the larger vision of the party is pretty clear, it lacks details as to the ways and means necessary to reach its goals. The more ideological wing of QS is often afraid of loosing touch with the values the party stands for, which sometimes results in animosity towards electoral pragmatism and a lack of strategic thinking.

Québec Solidaire leaders are at a crossroads as the next election approaches. They have to decide whether they want to stay minor players in the political arena and loud voices for the principles they defend, or whether they are ready to do what it takes for QS to become central to the legislative process, which could be possible in the next parliament. If the party chooses to move forward, it will have to bring in seasoned political operatives and put a state of the art targeting strategy in place to win seats. QS would also have to prioritize certain objectives at the expense of others because the economical climate does not allow for all of their vision to be implemented at once. Young “guns” who are currently flirting with a run for office need to be convinced that Québec Solidaire is the best organization to affiliate themselves with, and that the party is willing to push them into the spotlight.

Option Nationale

Of the four MPs who first deserted the PQ last year, it is the youngest one who decided to go ahead with the creation of a new pro-independence party. Jean-Martin Aussant was until then considered to be a rising figure within the new breed of politicians out of the PQ stalls. The fact that he worked in the financial sector made Aussant a credible critic of the Liberal government, but he decided he would be better served by a new political platform, which was given some visibility due to the PQ crisis and the tacit support of ex-Premier Jacques Parizeau. ON combines the advantages of being crystal clear about the project it carries and of having a clear slate politically, which can be refreshing for disillusioned independence activists.

As talks of elections become louder, though, Aussant has to be nervous about the future. His party is widely considered unidimensional. If he is known in some intellectual, financial and political circles, Aussant remains obscure to the general public and does not enjoy the visibility he had in the Official Opposition benches, far from it. Usually associated with a harder fringe within the PQ’s larger coalition, some of the activists who seem to be excited about the new party are not political organizers, and can even sometimes be described as uncontrollable pamphleteers, which is bad news for any party leader.

Time is running out if Aussant wants to make Option Nationale a viable choice in at least a handful of ridings in time for the next election. He will have to persuade some high profile picks with nothing to lose (from the artistic community?) to carry the flag with him. ON must also specify some areas in which they would be active (outside of the promotion of the independence) if they were to participate in a government (many would probably welcome Aussant as part of their economical team, for example). But even deeper than those challenges, Option Nationale needs to choose, once and for all, between pushing an agenda that mainly targets the PQ and putting a real operation in place, which will take much more than a single electoral cycle.

The importance of a plan

As the political world in Quebec is facing a great upheaval, too many politicians and organizations are taking a “wait and see” approach. It is natural that the “orange wave”, because of its spontaneous nature, questioned the necessity of political machinery. But what people need to understand is that this tsunami was an exception, not the rule. Looking at the polls, watching the technical legislative battles unfold in Quebec’s National Assembly, listening to political talking heads’ spins… none of this will help the parties prepare for the electoral fight.

These organizations need a plan first, a comprehensive strategy, based on their ideas and proposals, that outlines their concrete objectives in terms of regional representation, agenda pushing, breakthroughs in key constituencies for the future, money, image, message, etc. All of the above has to lead to a realistic seat projection reflecting the means available. The organization must put in place a ground operation that can win in key races, leaving as little free space as possible to the ups and downs of the news cycle and as much as possible to the will of the voters. If a lot of weight normally rests on the shoulders of the party leaders, the parties have to rethink their approach to better integrate all the aspects of their campaigns and make every member central to the operation and proud of it. Local organizers who used to rely on the same traditional metrics in the past and refused to welcome innovation in the political process might have to comply with new tactics as the political universe is changing. From choosing a candidate based on a field diagnosis to micro-targeting voters according to their priorities and from using new media in a fruitful way (not just because it is new) to reinventing campaign structures to better fit the requirements of a modern election, now is a great time to change the way the game is played.

If candidates and ideas change the world, Quebec in general and its voters in particular will also undoubtedly benefit from a rejuvenating process of its political culture. This could only encourage the electorate to pay attention and provide it with new ways to participate in the process.


Simon Lafrance is Managing Partner at STRATEGEUM (www.strategeum.com). He advises campaigns at all levels in Canada, the United States and internationally. He is a regular contributor to various media outlets as well as a frequent guest speaker on strategy related matters. You can follow him on Twitter via @SimonLafrance.

Tags: Action democratique du Quebec, Caq, Jean Charest, LPQ, Option Nationle, PQ, Quebec elections, Quebec politics, Quebec Solidaire