National Column: Quebec up for grabs in fall election

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by Chantal Hebert

If the Quebec election were held tomorrow, Francois Legault would become the first leader since Rene Levesque to bring a new party to power in the province. For more than four decades since its initial 1976 victory, the Parti Quebecois has been the main alternative to the Liberals. A Coalition Avenir Quebec win could consign the province’s once dominant sovereigntist party to the sidelines.

A Leger poll published by Le journal de Montreal and the network LCN just ahead of the campaign’s official start on Thursday shows that the Oct. 1 vote remains the Coalition Avenir Quebecís to lose. It has enjoyed a comfortable lead on the competition for months and Legault is seen as the best potential premier by a (modest) plurality of voters.

But winning the precampaign is not an ironclad guarantee of victory. If it were, Thomas Mulcair would have built on the gains of the orange wave and might have become prime minister in 2015, and Pauline Marois would still be premier.

The fact that this fall’s election will not – for the first time in decades – be a vote by proxy for or against sovereignty and another referendum has provided much of the impetus for the CAQ’s rise to first place.

But the blurring of Quebec long-standing battle lines is also making for one of the most volatile electorates in the country.

Quebecers have gone to the polls at the federal and provincial levels four times since 2011 and on three of those occasions the outcome of the vote did not match the pre-election trends.

Jack Layton in 2011, Philippe Couillard in 2014 and Justin Trudeau a year later each started their respective Quebec campaigns as more or less distant also-rans only to finish with a majority of the province’s seats on election night.

Since then, Montreal was also the scene of a mayoral upset that saw Denis Coderre ushered out of city hall last fall after just one term.

The new-found electoral mobility of a lot of Quebec voters has only increased since the Parti Quebecois joined the Bloc Quebecois in an ongoing decline. In Quebec, the winds of change seem to blowing harder against the PQ than against the incumbent Liberals.

When asked by Leger whether they could still change their choice, 45 per cent of respondents answered in the affirmative. Half of the current supporters of the CAQ are in that category.

That should come as no surprise, as some of the voters currently in Legaultís tent voted for the NDP at the time of the orange wave, supported Trudeau in the last federal election, and are even now telling pollsters they are planning to cast a ballot for the Liberals in next yearís federal election.

The notion that enough voters are keeping their options open to cost the CAQ its projected victory is one Couillard’s Liberals are clinging to as they enter the campaign. So is the fact that the Quebec Liberal party has demonstrated its resilience in the past.

Since the 1995 referendum, the Liberals lost only two elections and in both cases the strength of their vote was an election night surprise.

In 1998, Jean Charest came second to Lucien Bouchard but his Liberal party came first in the popular vote. In the midst of an unresolved student uprising in 2012, Charest lost his bid for a fourth mandate by a mere handful of seats.

On both occasions, the fear of another referendum was the glue that ended up binding federalist voters to the Liberal cause. Whether the partyís resilience will survive the loss of that glue is an open question.

Still, a little bit of hope is better than no hope.

The Leger poll suggests that the province-wide gap between the CAQ and the Liberals had narrowed from nine to six points over the summer. The PQ continues to lag far behind its main rivals at 18 per cent. But the provincial numbers hide the more dire Liberal reality that Legault leads by a margin of two to one in francophone Quebec.

If he is going to beat the long odds attending his reelection bid, Couillard will need all the help he can get in the shape of CAQ missteps. It is a sign of the changing political times that the Quebec Liberals could also really use a strong PQ campaign to better divide the vote against them.

Twitter: @ChantalHbert
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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