The end of Yes and No in Québec? A declining divide

The end of Yes and No in Québec? A declining divide
                                     The end of
                                     Yes and No in Québec?
                                     A declining divide
                                     Eric Montigny Ph.D.
                                     Université Laval

                                     As of 1970, with the birth of the Parti québécois and its success at the polls,
                                     Québec politics were shaped by a striking cleavage between those who were for
                                     Québec independence, and those who were against it. In short, the political
                                     debate was essentially structured on a fault line between the political project’s
                                     Yes and No partisans.

                                     This hegemonic divide cemented the partisan system into two large vehicles
                                     which shared essentially the same socioeconomic vision but had opposing ideas
                                     about Québec’s political and constitutional future. Réjean Pelletier summarizes
                                     the divide as follows:

                                     “A fraction of the new middle-class now supported the Liberal Party, which was
                                     for a more or less renewed, profitable federalism, and another fraction
                                     (intellectuals, artists, professors, some members of the liberal professions, etc.)
                                     supported the Parti québécois, which promoted Québec’s political sovereignty,
                                     combined with an economic association with the rest of Canada. This is a
                                     primarily political cleavage within a new middle class that broadly supports the
January 2016 Vol. 7 No 1             same neo-capitalist project, with some variants, depending on whether the stress
                                     was on private enterprise, with the Liberal Party, or on the state and cooperative
                                     sector, with the Parti québécois.” (Pelletier, 1989, p. 362) (our translation)

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                                     Since the 2007 election, however, this electoral split has been weakening. Many
                                     Québecers no longer identify exclusively with this divide. The result is greater
                                     volatility at the polls and, conversely, a weakened partisan allegiance. A first in
                                     contemporary times, the last four elections have yielded two minority
A Quebec Think tank on Federalism    governments, in 2007 and 2012. The cement that had kept the partisan system
                                     in place is thus crumbling.
11-38 Place du Commerce, Suite 189
Montreal, Quebec H3E 1T8
Telephone: 514 889-1499              Does this mean that the Yes-No divide is a thing of the past, and that a new                  partisan system is arising in Québec? The electorate still has room for a resolutely
independentist party. The project still mobilizes an ageing but well-populated
What is at stake now instead       generation, the baby boomers. The same applies to the minority communities
                                   which strongly oppose the project.
rests on the ability to mobilize
a majority of the electorate       What is at stake now instead rests on the ability to mobilize a majority of the
behind the prime goal              electorate behind the prime goal of independence. Do we still have two dominant
                                   political parties that are essentially based on these options? It this cleavage what
of independence.                   still structures the vote for the bulk of the electorate? Are other issues supplanting
                                   it? What is the political behaviour of the new generations?

                                   To answer these questions, we will address four key explanatory factors: 1) The
                                   unprecedented openness of the partisan system; 2) the rise of the Left-Right split
                                   and challenge to the Québec model; 3) the evolution of public opinion, and that
                                   of new generations; and 4) the fatigue of the traditional independence parties.
                                   These factors indicate a real waning of the hegemonic nature of the Yes-No
                                   cleavage within the Québec partisan system, with the advent of a new
                                   configuration more like other Western democracies. We then conclude with some
                                   thoughts on the scientific implications of this shift.

                                   1. A partisan system that is more open than ever
                                   As it unfolds over several elections, a change in the partisan system generally
                                   takes time to materialize. To last, the change must be based on a structural
                                   change in voter behaviour. Once one system configuration has replaced another,
                                   we can identify the exact timing. This is called a realigning election, in contrast
                                   with a maintaining election. The change may be ephemeral, as occurs when a
                                   deviating election follows a situational voter mood swing. That is then followed
                                   by an election that reinstates the previous partisan system.

                                   In conjunction with the first past the post system that favours institutional
                                   bipartism, the Québec partisan system has therefore always been relatively
                                   stable and dominated by two major political parties. Change within the system
                                   has essentially involved replacing one political party with another. The Québec
                                   Liberal Party (QLP) is the only political party that has been in existence since
                                   1867. Subsequent to various schisms, it was always the QLP that gave rise to its
                                   main rival and a period of instability. Between two separate partisan systems,
                                   there was a decade-long transition period marked by some uncertainty. That
                                   seems to be the case now.

                                   Adapting Lemieux’s (2005) typology to base it on the degree of openness and
                                   competitiveness, and whether the government was a majority or minority
                                   government, we find there have been four partisan systems in Québec since 1867.

                                   Theoretically, a partisan system can be considered open when the political
                                   parties that came in first and second do not manage to get more than 80% of the
                                   vote (Lemieux 2005). The cement of the Yes-No cleavage starts to show signs of
               2                   fissures as of 2003. As these parties got 79% of the vote, the first hints that the
Evolution of the Québec partisan system since 1867
  •   1867-1887 (closed, monopolistic, majority) Characterized by a conservative
      hegemony in which this party governed for 18 years and seven months,                The next two elections will
      followed by a transition period that began with the advent of Honoré Mercier
      and his Parti national.                                                             show if the partisan system’s
  •   1897-1935 (closed, monopolistic, majority) Characterized by a liberal               current openness augurs a
      hegemony followed by a transition period with the schism that gave rise to
      Action libérale nationale and the creation of Maurice Duplessis’ Union              new liberal hegemony,
      nationale party.                                                                    a lasting multipartite
  •   1944-1960 (closed, monopolistic, majority) Characterized by a Union
      nationale hegemony followed by a transition period in which the UN and QLP          reconfiguration of the
      alternated, and the emergence of independentist parties in the wake of the          partisan system, or the
      Quiet Revolution.
  •   1970-2007 (closed, competitive, majority) Characterized by a Yes/No to              advent of a new bipartism.
      independence hegemony based on alternation between the QLP and PQ,
      followed by a new period characterized by the existence of true multipartism.

Québec partisan system was opening up began to appear. These parties got 64%
of the vote in 2007, then 77% in 2008. The most open configuration in Québec
history came in 2012, when the parties that finished first and second got a total
of 63% of the vote. Although a majority government was elected in 2014, support
for the two leading parties represented just under 67% of the vote, 10% less than
the previous majority government achieved in 2008.

We are therefore seeing a more fragmented political menu and heightened
electoral volatility (Bastien et al., 2012). Five political parties were represented in
the House when it dissolved in 2012. In the subsequent election, four political
entities shared the vote: 31.95% for the Parti québécois, 31.2% for the Liberal
Party, 27.3% for the Coalition avenir Québec and 6% for Québec solidaire. The
remainder of the vote went to Option nationale (nearly 2%) and the Green Party
(with just 1% of the vote). In the early election on April 7, 2014, 41.5% of the vote
went to the Québec Liberal Party, 25% to the Parti québécois, 23% to Coalition
avenir Québec, and 7.6% to Québec solidaire. Among other things, the Québec
partisan system’s greater openness results in the emergence of new, more
competitive political parties.

The Parti québécois’ fate is a good illustration of the electorate’s volatility. After
having lost power in 2003, the party finished third in 2007, second in 2008 and
first in 2012. This formation governed for several months, then saw its support
plunge in the early election of 2014, getting 25% of the vote and taking just 30
out of 125 seats, compared with Coalition avenir Québec, which got 23% of the
vote and 22 seats.

The next two elections will show if the partisan system’s current openness
augurs a new liberal hegemony, a lasting multipartite reconfiguration of the
partisan system, or the advent of a new bipartism. One thing is certain, the                             3
repeated fragmentation of the configuration of the parties in the National
Over the last several years,     Assembly since 2007, in which the Parti québécois even temporarily lost its
                                 status as a dominant party in the National Assembly, attests to the unprecedented
debate in the public discourse   openness of Québec’s partisan system, and the decline of the hegemonic Yes-No
has surged on economic           cleavage.
issues, social programs and
                                 2. Rise of the Left-Right cleavage
the public finances.             A highly open partisan system comes with debate on matters other than issues
                                 pertaining to the question of Québec’s independence. The result is a challenge to
                                 the Québec model, around which there had been consensus among the parties
                                 since the end of the 1960s. This model was essentially based on the following
                                 characteristics: 1) economic interventionism, 2) social activism; 3) non-
                                 institutionalized corporatism; 4) a bureaucratized, regulated society; and 5) high
                                 taxation. As there was a consensus on these factors, political debate focused
                                 primarily on the opportunity to favour Quebec’s independence.

                                 As we have seen, the political offering has become more diverse with the
                                 fragmentation of the number of parties. The new institutionalized parties, Québec
                                 solidaire and Coalition avenir Québec, are not primarily aligned with the Yes-No
                                 cleavage, although they do have their own specific constitutional stances. These
                                 are not their prime objective, however.

                                 Over the last several years, debate in the public discourse has surged on
                                 economic issues, social programs and the public finances. Both Québec solidaire
                                 and Coalition avenir Québec, created from a merger with the ADQ, reflect the
                                 debate over government interventionism. Although it is in favour of sovereignty,
                                 Québec solidaire stresses the development of a wider social safety net, arguing
                                 for greater state intervention. The CAQ, for its part, prioritizes economic growth,
                                 a lower tax burden, and the reform of the Québec state. Their presence contributes
                                 to the emergence of a traditional Left-Right debate that is increasingly
                                 materializing in the ambient political discourse.

                                 Other fracture lines beyond the divide that structured political debate since 1970
                                 are emerging over social and economic issues. Public policy over which a
                                 consensus had existed is now being challenged, as well. In short, political debate
                                 is now based more on new thinking that is more focused on the role of the
                                 Québec state and its degree of intervention. Historically considered a catch-all
                                 party, the QLP has made the challenge to the Québec model its own. Does this
                                 mean that a new political fault line more associated with public policy is
                                 emerging? In addition to the inability to rally a majority of Québecers around the
                                 project of independence, two structural factors may help explain a change of this
                                 magnitude: Québec’s high debt load, and its ageing population.

                                 The public debt, with accrued deficits constituting 75% of it, is putting pressure
                                 on government spending. For several years now, debt service has been the
               4                 Québec government’s third-largest budget item. Fiscal 1998-1999 was the first
year in four decades to end with a surplus of $126M. Since the 2008 global
crisis, Québec has been struggling to balance the budget. This situation has been                             Québec is one of the most
fanning new partisan debate over the role of the state, sapping the consensus
                                                                                                              rapidly ageing Western
that had reigned for nearly 40 years.
                                                                                                              societies. This calls for
Québec is one of the most rapidly ageing Western societies. This calls for                                    reflection about both the
reflection about both the delivery of public services, and the integration of
                                                                                                              delivery of public services,
newcomers. According to the Institut de la statistique du Québec, Québec’s
natural growth will be positive until 2029. After that, deaths will exceed births. In                         and the integration
Québec, demographic growth will come solely from international migration.                                     of newcomers.
Demographic growth from immigration may foster some cultural insecurity in
the majority group.

In terms of identity, it would even be reasonable to think that the debate sparked
by the minority PQ government over a Charter of Values also made the fracture
lines within the electorate more complex and, by so doing, further weakened the
hegemony of the Yes-No cleavage, particularly among younger voters (Tessier
and Montigny 2016).

It is also interesting to note the parties’ positioning along the traditional Left-Right
axis. Data drawn from the 2012 Boussole québécoise1 (Vote Compass) makes it
possible to position voters according to their voting intentions. In addition to noting
that a majority of Québec voters were then at the centre-right, the exercise reveals
a higher than expected level of familiarity among respondents with the concepts
of Left and Right. In this spirit, for Boussole respondents, Québec’s political parties
had diverse positions that could be identified along the Left-Right axis. The
respondents’ self-positioning also confirmed some ideological similarities between
some parties, and a correlation between a voter’s support for independence and a
more Left-aligned position (Montigny, Gélineau and Pétry, 2012

                                        Figure 1
                   Respondents’ self-positioning on the Left-Right axis
                              based on voting intentions





                      1           2            3           4            5           6           7
                                  Average position on the Left-Right axis

1. This tool ran from August 1, 2012, to election day, September 4. 544,678 respondents participated. Of
   these, about 330,000 agreed to fill out the complementary questionnaire. The complementary questionnaire
   made it possible to collate sociodemographic data and some respondent attitudes about politics.
The political parties, even the two dominant parties, the QLP and PQ, are now
Young people find the        also differentiated along the socioeconomic axis. Over the last several years, the
                             Left-Right aspect of traditional political debate has become part of Québec’s
sovereignist project less    partisan dynamic. The national question is clearly no longer the only voting vector
appealing than previous      for many voters. The 2012 student crisis on access to education may have been
generations did. This does   a much more important political socialization event for the new generations than
                             the grand referendum manoeuvres experienced by those who preceded them.
not necessarily mean they
are federalists.             3. Public opinion and the new generations
                             A great deal of caution is required in analyzing Québec’s electorate. As we have
                             said, it has been especially volatile in recent years. Yet numerous opinion polls
                             conducted by various polling firms indicate that the Yes-No cleavage is in decline.
                             This phenomenon is especially true for young people.

                             Done immediately after the 2014 election, CROP’s 2014 portrait of the political
                             attitudes of young Québecers aged 18 to 24 is telling.2 Among other things, it
                             shows that young people find the sovereignist project less appealing than
                             previous generations did. This does not necessarily mean they are federalists. In
                             a study of 125 surveys conducted since 1977, sociologist Claire Durand
                             concluded that youth support for sovereignty and the PQ was declining constantly.3
                             These are not new findings. The data from the 2014 Boussole électorale
                             québecoise4 (Québec Vote Compass) broadcast on Radio-Canada already
                             indicated this trend. Young Parti québécois elected representatives had been
                             discussing the phenomenon for several years.5

                             Sociologist Simon Langlois analyzed data collected by Léger in surveys conducted
                             between 1995 and 2015.6 The data represents 44 compiled surveys and 44,972
                             respondents, for whom he analyzed “firm” Yes and No positions. He observed a
                             demobilization of the proponent group (active francophone population) and a
                             downtrend in support for Québec sovereignty starting in the 2000s. He concluded
                             that everything suggested that the horizon for independence was becoming
                             more remote; independence was the project of one generation, driven by the
                             baby boomers.

                             A CROP survey conducted in October 15 for the Research Chair in Democracy
                             and Parliamentary Institutions confirms this generational finding.7 It also shows
                             that only one out of five Québecers expects independence to come one day. A

               6             7.
sign of fatigue: it was the case for just one out of two Yes partisans. Moreover,
many members of the new generations do not see Canadian and Québec                            Politically, only 16%
identities as mutually exclusive; the option of a new agreement within Canada is
their preferred option. This constitutional reform corresponds to the preference              of respondents (9% for
of the population as a whole.                                                                 18-24 year olds) now dream
                                                                                              of independence, well behind
In March 2015, CROP also conducted a survey on what Québecers dream of now.8
Politically, only 16% of respondents (9% for 18-24 year olds) now dream of                    the fight against poverty that
independence, well behind the fight against poverty that ranks among the top                  ranks among the top
priorities for 40% of the population. Because it illustrates the relevance of the             priorities for 40% of
issues, this figure is especially important.
                                                                                              the population.
The results converge and show that the tectonic plates on which political analysis
has been based for decades are shifting. Initially, the result is a highly volatile
electorate. A second finding: Québec public opinion is increasingly being
expressed beyond the Yes-No prism. This is especially true for the new
generations, allowing a structural change based on long-term forces to emerge.

4. Changes in the sovereignty movement and the decline in support for
   traditional independentist parties
The multipartism that has now lasted nearly ten years has its consequences. For
Québec, it shows first in a downward trajectory in Parti québécois support, which
has been declining almost constantly since the 1994 election. In terms of
percentage, the support the PQ got in 2014 was similar to the levels seen in
1970. Federally, the Bloc Québecois has declined even more sharply, as was
confirmed in 2015 when it won 19.3% of the Québec vote. By polarizing the vote

                                           Figure 2
                         Evolution of the PQ and Bloc québécois vote




          1970        1976   1985    1993     1997   2000   2004   2007   2011     2014
                 PQ          Bloc québécois

between the Bloc and the Liberal Party of Canada, in the end, the Yes-No cleavage
Elected in 2015, the Parti       structured debate from 1993 to 2011, in the wake of the failures of the Meech
                                 Lake Accord and 1995 referendum.
québécois’ new leader,
Pierre Karl Péladeau,            For the sovereignty movement, the implications are numerous. In Ottawa, the
has clearly stated that he was   Bloc is weak and has no status. In Québec, the breakdown of the partisan system
                                 is benefiting other political parties that belong to the autonomy family. They, of
not interested in leading        course, have a different vision of Québec’s future.
Québec within the Canadian
federal structure.               Today, the Parti québécois faces two structural problems. Firstly, the drop in
                                 available clientele who support independence reduces its pool of potential voters.
                                 Secondly, greater competition and the existence of alternatives make it harder
                                 for it to position itself.

                                 In the past, the PQ was able to grab nationalist voters by focusing on the principle
                                 of alternation and abuse of power. To succeed, it focused on an environmental
                                 adaptation strategy based on the concept of good government, in which it was
                                 possible to vote for the PQ without necessarily voting Yes in a referendum. Under
                                 Lucien Bouchard, Bernard Landry and Pauline Marois, the PQ went even further
                                 along this path, developing phrases such as “winning conditions”, a “moral
                                 assurance of winning”, and “sovereignist governance” to avoid committing to a
                                 referendum after being elected (Montigny, 2011).

                                 That is no longer possible. With the breakdown of the partisan system, the PQ is
                                 no longer the flagship that rallied Yes partisans. This creates a dilemma in
                                 selecting its primary partisan goal: the right government, with a risk of boosting
                                 other independentist parties, or setting a clear course for independence, with the
                                 risk of not forming the government.

                                 Elected in 2015, the Parti québécois’ new leader, Pierre Karl Péladeau, has clearly
                                 stated that he was not interested in leading Québec within the Canadian federal
                                 structure.9 The 2015 federal election was also revealing. In the francophone
                                 leaders’ debate, Gilles Duceppe confirmed the independence movement’s new
                                 vision. In short, it sounds the death knell for the partnership proposal in favour of
                                 a more decomplexed independence project, and that an eventual referendum
                                 question would be subject to a negotiation with Ottawa. This marks a break with
                                 the strategy adopted following the 1995 referendum, as well as with the concept
                                 of sovereignty-association that gave rise to the Parti québécois. There, the
                                 current project is much more in step with what the Rassemblement pour
                                 l’indépendance nationale proposed.

                                 Yet, even with a more assertive discourse, the question of Québec independence
                                 was not a critical issue in the last election. Organizationally, the major Québec
                                 unions’ support for the NDP also illustrated the strength of the Left-Right cleavage

               8                 9.
to the detriment of a Yes-No cleavage. The sovereignist movement thus lost a
traditional ally. Opposing the Conservatives, the LPC also managed to beat the
                                                                                           For many citizens,
NDP on its left (Montigny and Gélineau, 2015).
                                                                                           particularly the new
Rather than a hegemonic cleavage, the Yes-No split is now becoming a weapon                generations, the national
in some parties’ arsenals for trying to mobilize the base10 and maintain their
                                                                                           question is only one question
dominance. To date, turning it into a tool seems to work better for adherents of
the status quo rather than for independentist political parties. This also seems to        among others, ranking
be the card the Québec Liberal Party is playing.                                           alongside the environment,
                                                                                           the debt, economic
A more complex political reality
Does the decline of the Yes-No divide mean the decline of Québec nationalism?              development and the future
No. Contemporary nationalism evolves in a context in which Québec and Québecers            of the social programs.
are building reputations abroad, as well as in Québec as a host society that is
grappling with demographic, resource management, and public policy issues.

Throughout Québec’s history, its people have demonstrated their nationalism in
a variety of ways. Starting at the end of the 19th century, this took the form of a
French-Canadian nationalism based on the concept of survival. Protecting
Québec identity was essentially based on defending the language and traditions,
and an important role for the clergy. In 1960, with the Quiet Revolution, the state
took over. French-Canadian nationalism turned into Québec nationalism. For
more than forty years, Québec’s political life was structured around whether one
was for or against sovereignty. Imposed by the dominant parties of the time, the
Yes-No divide now primarily exists among the baby boomers. The 2018 Québec
election will be the first in decades in which this generation will not have the
most weight (Gélineau, 2015). A number of indicators now point out that it is
declining among the coming generations. Today, particularly in connection with
identity and economic issues, Québec nationalism is expressed outside of the
traditional cleavage between the Yes and No factions.

Those who study, teach and analyze both Canadian and Québec politics must
take note of these changes. It would now be reductive to classify a large number
of voters using an antiquated binary referendum grid. Québec’s contemporary
reality is a lot more complex.

For many citizens, particularly the new generations, the national question is only
one question among others, ranking alongside the environment, the debt,
economic development and the future of the social programs. They do not define
themselves as sovereignists or federalists, so why give them a label handed
down to us from the 1970s? For some of them, this is a debate that primarily
belongs to their grandparents.

Periods of change are not easy to analyze or grasp. In fact, few sovietologists
For now, although not gone     predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. It meant a loss of simple signposts, as
                               well as a subject of study. The image is a strong one and the changes seen in
altogether, the Yes-No
                               Québec are, of course, not of the same magnitude. That being said, if we do not
cleavage no longer has the     adapt our analytical tools to better understand the evolution of Québec
same hegemony. It is time to   nationalism, we could, as academics and analysts, be caught off guard, become
                               obsolete or in a position of having to play catch-up regarding our society’s
adjust to this new reality.
                               evolution. For now, although not gone altogether, the Yes-No cleavage no longer
                               has the same hegemony. It is time to adjust to this new reality.

                               Bastien, Frédérick; Bélanger, Éric & Gélineau, François (dir.), Les Québécois
                               aux urnes, Montréal: Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2013.

                               Gélineau, François, “Poids électoral : la revanche de la génération X,” in Annick
                               Poitras, L’état du Québec 2015, Montréal: Del Busso Éditeur. 2015.

                               Lemieux, Vincent, Les partis et leurs transformations, Québec: Les Presses de
                               l’Université Laval, 2005.

                               Montigny, Éric, Leadership et militantisme au Parti québécois, Québec: Presses
                               de l’Université Laval, 2011.

                               Montigny, Eric, François Gélineau and François Pétry, “La Boussole électorale
                               québécoise,” in Bastien, Frédérick & al., Les Québécois aux urnes, Montréal:
                               Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2013, pp. 285-297.

                               Montigny, Eric and François Gélineau, “Le NPD au Québec: doublé sur sa
                               gauche,” in Alex Marland and Thierry Giasson, Canadian Election Analysis:
                               Communication, Strategy, and Democracy/Points de vue sur l’élection canadienne:
                               Communication, stratégie et démocratie, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015.

                               Pelletier, Réjean, Partis politiques et société québécoise, Montréal: Québec/
                               Amérique, 1989.

                               Tessier, Charles and Eric Montigny, “Untangling Myths and Facts: Who Supports
                               the Québec Charter of Values?”, French Politics, forthcoming 2016.

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