The Quebec election campaign has generated one surprise after another since it started March 5. With the approach of the April 7 vote, we look at a few key moments for each party, and what they have to do to meet objectives in the next seven days.
At 11:30 a.m. on March 9, Leader Pauline Marois introduced a candidate who was among the big catches in Quebec political history. Pierre Karl Péladeau was compared to other famous recruits – such as Lucien Bouchard and Pierre Trudeau – who turned Quebec politics upside down. A business titan and celebrity, Mr. Péladeau’s arrival rattled PQ opponents. He added economic credibility to the PQ team, which was already running with a majority government in sight. Mr. Péladeau provided gravitas to the sovereignty movement, triggering instant analysis that a referendum campaign would likely lie ahead.
Within 48 hours, Mr. Péladeau seemed to do more harm than good for the PQ. Progressives in the sovereignty movement shifted nervously and unions blasted away at the party, their traditional ally. A poll showed that Quebeckers who dislike the man are about equal in number to his admirers.
The PQ has had some success turning the spotlight on Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard on two fronts: his rather mercenary work history and his wholehearted defence of bilingualism, which is highly unusual for a Liberal leader.
With a couple of exceptions, Philippe Couillard has stuck to his game plan. That consistent performance peaked in the first leaders’ debate on March 20. He firmly tapped into fear among the majority of Quebeckers of a third referendum on sovereignty. He sidestepped uncomfortable questions and pointed attacks. In Mr. Couillard’s rookie debate appearance, he came across as unflappable, good-humoured and solid leadership material. It was a solid job interview for premier from a first-time candidate.
In the second debate one week later, Mr. Couillard performed like a man who suddenly felt 22 days of attacks pressing upon his shoulders. Where one week earlier he was smooth and confident when asked about his offshore bank account and association with Dr. Porter, he seemed defensive and stunned by predictable questions. Where in Debate One he managed to get a referendum on the table early and often, he waited 75 minutes to raise independence in Debate Two. He was the target of all attacks, and even the television lights seemed more intense, shining off his forehead with a cruel glare. His foray into factory-floor bilingualism at the debate may yet prove harmful.
The sad truth is the most effective Liberal tactic for decades now has been a form of negative-option voting. Liberal leaders can promise innovative health-care reforms, new protections for the French language, jobs, balanced budgets, but nothing has more reliably drawn support than fear of a referendum. In recent elections, the former Liberal leader Jean Charest would save his most strident warnings for the final weeks of the campaign. Mr. Péladeau’s aggressive separatist message in the early days, combined with Ms. Marois’s musings about the shape of a future country, provided Mr. Couillard an unusual opportunity to launch the argument forcefully just four days into the campaign.
Coalition Avenir Québec
CAQ Leader François Legault was the fox in the henhouse in the last leadership debate, nibbling at the legs of the two front-running candidates. Mr. Legault is not in the running to be premier of Quebec. He’s unlikely to even match the 19 seats his party won in 2012. But his energetic performance at the debate may be enough to energize the 15 per cent of voters who still expressed support in most recent polls.
Mr. Legault has not always worn his pugnacity so well. He described the Liberal record in scatological terms. Back-alley language aside, a low point was his March 15 meeting with reporters where Mr. Legault pronounced himself “at peace” with poll results showing the arrival of Mr. Péladeau on the scene drove many of his supporters to the Quebec Liberal Party. He acknowledged he had a major hill to climb, but that he wasn’t in politics to whine about his lot. It was a sad defeatist note for a man who had designs on growing from a third party with a solid 27-per-cent support in the 2012 election into a governing alternative now.
Mr. Legault is in salvage mode. Various seat projections suggest he might only hang on to a handful. His feisty work in the final debate was a start. Those who believe in his message of lower taxes, slashed bureaucracy, and no referendum believe it strongly. He needs to keep their spirits up to make sure they turn up to vote, and to keep more of them from leaking to the Liberals.
The day Pierre Karl Péladeau stepped into politics, the main PQ opponents, the Liberals and the CAQ, were muted in criticism and cautious in praise. Instead it was Françoise David, one of two QS members who sat in the last legislature, who defined Mr. Péladeau’s arrival that day. “We cannot remain silent in the face of this odious candidacy,” Ms. David said, describing PKP as pitiless and intransigent. She took the opportunity to squelch any talk of coalition with the PQ: “Never, never will a solidaire sit on the same bench as Pierre Karl Péladeau.” Instantly, Mr. Péladeau was defined as a wedge instead of a celebrity star candidate.
Québec Solidaire avoids much of the attention (and therefore the scrutiny) other parties and their leaders get, so there have been no big scandals and few difficult questions. When the party gets in trouble, it’s generally because of an overreach that doesn’t gain sustained attention. Just Saturday, the party suggested Mr. Péladeau was doing something wrong by having companies registered in Delaware, a corporate tax haven used by many companies with international business. Dozens of Quebec companies have branches registered in Delaware, including Québec Solidaire’s own credit union.
Quebec Solidiare has grown slowly from zero to two seats since it was founded in 2006. They would sorely love to add a couple more. They will concentrate efforts in one or two Montreal ridings, such as the left-wing PQ stronghold of Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques. How well they are organized to get out the vote in a handful of ridings will matter more than anything Ms. David does in the final week of the provincial campaign.
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