Young 'Super Mario' shakes up Canadian politics

Monday, an upstart right-of-center party in Quebec won three of the four by-elections.

Monday's by-elections in Quebec, in which three of the four seats were won by the relatively new, right-of-center Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ), may signal a new era in the province's politics – including an end to the separatist movement that has dominated political debate here for the past 40 years.

And it is all due to the efforts of one man: Mario Dumont. Mr. Dumont is the most talked-about man in Canadian politics, altering political discourse in Quebec in just eight years.

For French-speaking Quebecois, Dumont is "Super Mario," a nickname that mirrors his amazing rise from a political oddity to likely the next premier.

To others, he is the 'oldest' young man in Quebec politics – in his early 30s, he's been a member of the National Assembly, and the founder and leader of ADQ for eight years. The handsome, well-spoken – and happily married – Dumont also has been jokingly called every Quebec mother's dream son-in-law.

More important, for many young Quebeckers he is, as the newspaper Le Devoir put it, "une bouffée d'air frais" –a breath of fresh air – a break from decades of separatist debate.

The governing Parti Québécois (PQ), which held all four seats before the vote, retained only one, and that by 648 votes. The Liberals, who many felt had to win at least one seat, were shut out.

Traditionally the public uses by-elections to express dissatisfaction with the governing party on both the federal and provincial levels. The PQ, for instance, has won only two of the past eight. But observers say these may indicate a seismic shift.

"Mario Dumont is not a fad," says Christian Dufour, a professor at the Ecole Nationale d'Adminstration Publique in Montreal. "For many people, young people especially, he represents a real change from the old battles and policies of the past. For others who also want a change, he is neither the Liberals nor the Parti Quebecois, and they will vote for him for that alone, even if they don't really know what he stands for."

Dumont is a great example of the "overnight sensation" who actually has been around for years. He was the leader of the Young Liberals of Quebec when he left the party in 1994 to start his own party, the ADQ. For years, he was the party's only member. Back then, the political establishment dismissively referred to him as "Petit Mario" – Little Mario.

But Dumont kept spreading his message of a flat tax, an increased private-sector role in delivering healthcare, and a voucher system for education. While the two main parties battled over Quebec independence, Dumont increasingly presented another route, especially to young, entrepreneurial Quebecois, tired of a system where they entered the highest tax bracket at around C$54,000 (US$35,000).

At first the PQ and the Liberals ignored him. But in the past two months, they have attacked him repeatedly, hoping to scare away his growing support. A PQ member recently compared the ADQ to extreme-right winger Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in France, a charge later withdrawn.

While the Liberals may be the most affected by Dumont's success in the short run, it is the PQ who are the most in danger. Guy LaForest, a political scientist at Université Laval in Quebec City and a one-time policy adviser to the ADQ, says that the rise of the ADQ signals the collapse of the PQ.

"Dumont is a strong nationalist, a true Quebec patriot," says Mr. LaForest. "But he knows how to work with Canada. He knows that people want to think about other issues right now, like healthcare and taxes, more than they want to think about independence. But that doesn't mean they don't want Quebec to be strong."

Dumont still has a long way to go if he wants to be the province's next premier. After last night's by-elections, the PQ hold 69 seats, the Liberals 51, and the ADQ five. Under Canadian and Quebec law, the governing party must call a general election within the next few months. But now Dumont will have momentum on his side.

La Forest says Dumont's success allows larger, more important questions to be asked.

"The interesting question for an international audience is not why an independence movement came into being, but why did the Parti Québécois nationalism fail? Quebec is staying, but what price has Canada paid for triumphing over sovereignty.... How much has it prevented us from modernizing the Canadian system?"

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