The stakes are high in the campaign to win Sunday's vote for a new mayor of Montreal, but the ante was relatively small and none of the players all that impressive.
After two mayoral resignations and dozens of arrests linked to corruption, and with the frightening scope of a rotten system of political financing revealed at the Charbonneau inquiry, most Montrealers hoped the campaign would be a confrontation worthy of a great metropolis desperate for renewal.
Instead, a pedestrian campaign has unfolded among four flawed contenders hurling insults and hollow slogans while leading slates with questionable council candidates. (Six quit over ethics issues. Others faced questions about links to organized crime.)
With a four-way split in the vote, the next mayor of Montreal is likely to win with even less popular support than the 38 per cent Gérald Tremblay took to hold office in 2009.
The last poll published more than two weeks ago showed former federal Liberal cabinet minister Denis Coderre was the front-runner, despite his adoption of two dozen candidates from the defunct and discredited Union Montréal party. Three other candidates split the remaining support, but the race may have tightened: The most buzz seemed to follow Mélanie Joly, the 34-year-old political neophyte whose marketing savvy pushed her from complete unknown into the group of contenders.
"We did not find a saviour, a grand servant of the city in this campaign," said Danielle Pilette, a professor of urban affairs at the Université du Québec à Montreal. "I think the grand cleanup is yet to come, and it may have to come with criminal trials and the Charbonneau commission. The entire system is just too compromised to be cleaned up by a Montreal politician."
If there was a cleansing factor in the campaign, it may have been the diminished presence of money. But, as Dr. Pilette pointed out, it will be impossible to know until months after the vote, and a lot of money was still spent.
The most recent financial reports show the four main parties in the contest combined to raise a little more than $1-million. While final reports have yet to be filed, the coffers will likely contain far less than the $3.1-million they spent in 2009, a total that did not count hundreds of thousands collected illegally by the then-ruling, now-defunct Union Montréal.
This time, even front-runners pared down campaigns, waving roadside at rush hour to gain visibility, printing fewer signs and hardly mounting any ad war. With a donation limit of $300, each campaign was forced to rely on a long roster of small donors which officials hope will lead to reduced likelihood the system can be rigged.
Ms. Joly's campaign was the leanest, running on about $160,000, from small donors and $56,000 in loans. "We don't have the political machine of our adversaries, we know that. So if we get in, it's really because there's a wave," Ms. Joly said.
Mr. Coderre probably ran the richest campaign, reporting at least $366,000 in fundraising two weeks ago. The other two candidates fell in between.
But even a leaner campaign did not avoid all money controversy. Mr. Coderre's campaign was slowest to disclose donors, including from a single fundraiser that garnered $100 each from 2,800 donors.
His opponent, Richard Bergeron, the left-leaning councillor who is the only candidate who has previously run for mayor, pointed out such dinners were rife with "strawman" donors in previous years. Big donors would provide massive, illegal cash donations, which would be broken up and hidden under dupes or unethical volunteers willing to lend their names for a tax rebate.
"How do you raise $280,000 in one night? I don't see how it's possible without that kind of practice," Mr. Bergeron said. Mr. Coderre responded that all will be reported in due time. "It takes time to process all that information, and we will," he said.
The donor lists published revealed where each candidate found favour in the Montreal electorate. Mr. Coderre's list was a who's who of Liberal stalwarts, as well as people from northeast Montreal, his political bastion since his early days as an MP.
Mr. Coderre has the biggest public profile, and even a late-campaign video of him trying to scold Hasidic Jews into support him is unlikely to dent in his image among supporters as a jovial sort. "I have confidence in him, and he's just a good man," said Howard Grégoire, a retiree from the city's east end who gave $100.
Ms. Joly's donor list was peppered with marketing gurus, software workers and young entrepreneurs. "I took a look at the old guard, and I was inspired to give to Ms. Joly. I'm in my 40s, and I think it's important we start looking for the next generation, some new blood," said Guillaume Aniorté who recently sold off an educational videogame startup and gave $300.
Mr. Bergeron, a champion of public transit and other green policy, drew on the public service, academic circles and working class.
Marcel Côté, a well-regarded economist and management consultant who at 71 was a political rookie, was the choice of the Montreal establishment. His roster of donors includes at least a dozen lawyers from blue-chip Montreal law firms, accountants, university officials, bank executives and high-end, established artists.