by Jacob T. Levy
There is a nice dilemma at work in Canadian politics at the moment; I've never seen
anything quite like it.
Elections are coming up soon in Quebec and at the federal level.
At the federal level, Stephen Harper's current minority Conservative government is
hoping to gain enough seats to become a majority, but isn't by any means
guaranteed even to remain a minority government. Stephane Dion, a political
scientist turned Liberal leader, is putting up a vigorous fight to say the least; and
Harper's right-leaning (by Canadian standards) policies have often been unpopular in
the eastern parts of the country.
One way for Harper to stave off the Liberals is by trying to suppress enthusiasm for
that party in areas where the Conservatives have no chance, trying to drive votes to
the socialist New Democratic Party, the Greens, or the secessionist Bloc Quebecois.
The Liberal-Bloc contest within Quebec is central; the Conservatives won't win many
seats here, but they were able to take power last time in part because the Bloc had
one of its best elections ever and took a number of seats from the Liberals. If the
Liberals were to win Quebec big, Haper's task in the rest of the country would be
Unfortunately, there's a provincial election to consider.
Within Quebec, there's a Quebec Liberal government (allied to but not part of the
federal Liberal party); a Parti Quebecois opposition (the PQ and the Bloc are
organizationally distinct though allied); Greens; and Action Democratique du Quebec,
a rural-populist conservative party. The government currently leads in polls, by a
whisker, over the PQ. And a PQ win would certainly mean yet another referendum on
Quebec independence, which is near the bottom of the wish list of anyone who sees
himself as Prime Minister in the next year. (The PQ is being cagey about the
word referendum, since it's clear that another one would be unpopular
regardless of views on secession, but they're reaffirming the substance of their
traditional commitments. And their campaign posters plastered all over my
neighborhood have, as their largest word, "OUI," as in, "for a cleaner/ better
eductaed/ more prosperous Quebec, OUI, vote for the PQ." One votes yes or no in a
referendum, not a general election.)
Add in one more piece of temptation for Harper. Dion, that new federal Liberal
leader, is deeply upopular among at least one generation of potential Quebec swing
voters. He's been a consistent and vocal opponent of secession and supporter of
federalism for decades. Among those Quebecois who have even mild sympathy for
independence, he's apparently ... not well-loved. If the Conservatives were to blanket
the airwaves of Quebec with "Liberal=Dion=bad" commercials, they might really
affect the Liberal-Bloc split in the federal election, and hold onto power. But doing so
risks also affecting the Quebec Liberal-PQ split in the provincial election,
and that's bad news; the Conservatives clearly but silently root for a Quebec Liberal
In fact, the Tories ran just such ads, in English and in French, over the past month.
But they weren't very impressive attack ads, to this American's eye, and they didn't
dent the polls, and now they seem to be gone. The dilemma, however, remains.
NB: No, I'm not writing about Canadian politics just as a way to welcome our new Canadian overlords. But if they
happen to notice that I'm the only Canadian resident posting on OU and want to put
me in charge, well, there's nothing I can do about that....