Apart from convinced sovereigntists, very few people had given serious thought to the possibility of a third referendum on Quebec’s independence before the current election. Support for independence has been oscillating around 40% for years and a huge proportion of the population did not want to hear about it, including disillusioned sovereigntists. Even a deeply disliked conservative government in Ottawa hasn’t been enough to reignite the independence flame. But things can move quickly in politics, and it now appears that a Parti Québécois majority government would switch gear and do whatever it can to create a momentum for sovereignty. As Daniel pointed out, the baby boomers who are masterminding the current PQ strategy are arguably thinking that their best chance to see an independent Quebec during their lifetime is to organize a new referendum as quickly as possible. Media mogul and now PQ candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau (PKP) is not known for his patience.
The PQ’s position in the electoral campaign is that it will publish a white paper and launch a public consultation on the future of Quebec. Pauline Marois says that she hopes she can convince Quebecers that sovereignty is desirable within the next mandate but that she will not “rush” them. It won’t hold a referendum at all costs and it will not disclose its strategy. In sum, we don’t know whether a PQ government would hold a third referendum within their first mandate as a majority government. Democratic theorists rightly consider that governmental decisions are more democratically legitimate when the ruling party defended them in the electoral campaign. This is built into the logic of representative democracy. Of course, no one expects to find all the decisions made by a government in the party’s electoral program. Governments need to deal with the unexpected, and political authority is delegated to elected officials for the duration of their mandate. That said, citizens need to know what they are voting for, especially when potentially transformative policies are concerned.
The PQ’s tactic, then, seems democratically suspect. Independence would involve altering in the most significant way the current constitutional order. The least that the PQ can do is to tell us whether or not they will hold a referendum if we grant them the power to govern us for the next four years. In contradistinction to René Lévesque in 1976 and Jacques Parizeau in 1994, Pauline Marois does not want to commit to holding a referendum in a first mandate. The support for sovereignty and for the idea of debating sovereignty is too weak as we speak, and PQ leaders are not confident enough that they would be able to reverse the tide. In fact, the focus on sovereignty and referendum since PKP’s irruption in the campaign has harmed the PQ so far.
So the PQ is not taking the democratic highroad. Does it entail that the PQ’s position is democratically illegitimate? It’s tempting to say yes, as André Pratte did, but I don’t think it would be accurate. After all, the PQ has a position. Under ideal conditions, all voters would know that a PQ majority government would try to gather the wining conditions for a successful referendum. Those who really do not want a third referendum should not vote for the PQ. Moreover, the PQ is committed to launching a public consultation on Quebec’s future. If the polls show that enthusiasm for sovereignty has gone up after proper public deliberation, it would be hard for deliberative democrats to say that holding a referendum would be illegitimate on the grounds that it wasn’t a clear electoral commitment. Deliberative democrats rightly insist that democratic politics cannot be reduced to electoral politics.
Be that as it may, and leaving political ethics aside, there are signs that the PQ is paying the price for its ambiguous position. As Josée Legault points out, a recent poll shows that 67% of respondents believe, perhaps because of the PKP effect, that a PQ majority government would hold a referendum. As a consequence, the PQ leadership is now suggesting that the chances that a referendum would be held are slim (as Marois did in the debate) and to change the discussion. Their wish is that the secularism Charter and the fictional rise of Islamism will return to center stage. This will be difficult, but those who are opposed to the Charter probably need to keep quiet so that it doesn’t obscure all the other issues once again.