Traditionally, the Quebec electoral map is a duopoly of Liberal red and Parti Québécois blue, with elections won and lost in a tug of war over a handful of ridings. The emergence of the Action démocratique du Québec in 2007 blew this long-reliable model to smithereens. The populist party took 41 seats at the expense of both traditional parties. Led by a young, telegenic fellow named Mario Dumont, the ADQ was a way out of Quebec’s two-party pas de deux—and, potentially, the province’s decades-old debate over sovereignty.
What a difference seven years make. As Quebec ventures into its fourth election in less than a decade—Quebecers may head to the ballot boxes in mid-April—the province appears to be returning to the tug-of-war politics of yore. The ADQ was all but erased from the map before the party dissolved in 2012; its successor, the Coalition Avenir Québec, has been trending downward in the polls for more than a year. In many respects, the election will likely be a fight over the CAQ scraps remaining on the electoral table.
And despite what the PQ has so far suggested, a referendum on Quebec sovereignty is very much in the cards, should the party win a majority in the next election.
In 2012, the CAQ won 18 seats, largely in Quebec City and the suburbs flanking the island of Montreal. It did so by appealing to the typically suburban desires for lower taxes, less government and a promise to fight Quebec’s endemic political corruption. Though leader François Legault is a former Péquiste minister, the party is indifferent at best to the idea of Quebec separation.
Not all 18 ridings will swing to Quebec’s two well-established parties. Yet with much of the province already spoken for by the PQ and the Liberals, those handfuls of seats will be crucial to win the next election. In order to do so, the respective parties will have to crack the vexing motivations of the typical CAQ voter.
Generally speaking, he or she is a white Baby Boomer obsessed with pocketbook issues, but also wary of immigrants and religions other than run-of-the-mill Catholicism. In Montreal’s off-island suburbs, to which an increasing number of old-stock francophone families have decamped, identity politics will likely benefit the PQ.
The sovereignist party came a close second in nearly every riding won by the CAQ in 2012; it is here where polls suggest the PQ’s proposed secularism charter has had significant traction. What’s interesting, though, is these same suburban voters tend to be allergic to referendum talk—which is probably why Pauline Marois et al. have studiously avoided the topic when talking to anyone but their hardcore base.
In Quebec City, where there are actually very few immigrants to be afraid of, economic issues rule the day. It is conservative to the point of being hostile toward the Parti Québécois, which hasn’t won a seat in 10 of 11 area ridings in more than a decade. (The downtown Quebec City riding of Jean Talon has never gone PQ.) This is arguably the Liberals’ most fertile ground in the coming election. Yet it is also home to very stubborn CAQ support. CAQ MNAs Gérard Deltell, Éric Caire and Marc Picard won their ridings by a combined average of 28 percentage points.
The Liberals have other challenges, among them the eternal conundrum of Montreal, its traditional home and centre of power. The Liberals have long dominated the city, and support has swelled by upward of 15 percentage points under current leader Philippe Couillard. Yet an uptick in support on the island has rarely translated to more seats; the Liberals just win the ones they already have by that much more.
The PQ’s base, meanwhile, remains in the suburbs and rural regions, where comparatively fewer votes can swing entire ridings. Little surprise, then, that the PQ pre-electoral promises included millions of investment dollars in several key rural ridings. Curiously, Couillard decided to give up his safe seat in Montreal to run in Roberval, a rural riding 300 km north of Quebec City where the PQ incumbent won the 2012 election by nearly 20 percentage points.
Finally, Couillard himself has faltered in the wake of Premier Pauline Marois, who, over the course of eight months, has successfully recast herself in the eyes of many Quebecers. This change arguably has its roots in disaster; Marois’s deft, steady hand following the deadly rail explosion in Lac Mégantic last July began her relentless march up the polls.
She appealed to would-be CAQ voters with the promised charter and an uncharacteristically conservative mini-budget chock full of spending freezes and a promise of gas exploration on the pristine Anticosti Island. An earlier incarnation of Marois might have blushed at such an environmental faux pas. Today, she is hoping it will get her votes.
Under Couillard, meanwhile, Liberal support among francophones has dropped to 24 per cent, according to the most recent CROP polls—though this is hardly anything new. Jean Charest began his 2003 campaign with 19 per cent francophone support, and wound up winning a majority. The Parti Québécois tends to appeal to Quebecers’ hearts. It’s up to Couillard to win their minds.
If he doesn’t, and the PQ wins a majority, expect a swift return to the days of language battles, flights of capital and a renewed push for a third referendum to take Quebec out of Canada. The PQ would benefit from its own honeymoon period, should it call a referendum in the early days of a majority mandate.
A quick referendum would further allow the PQ to portray Stephen Harper, much unloved in Quebec, as a perfect federalist bogeyman. As former Conservative organizer Peter White recently pointed out, there are few leaders who can champion the federalist cause in Quebec these days; there are only villains. Barely adults when the PQ lost its first referendum in 1980 and already middle-aged for 1995’s loss, the PQ faithful realize in their greying years that this is the last kick at the can. They will fight hard, starting with this election campaign.