In typical fashion, pollster Jean-Marc Léger, President of Léger Marketing, couldn’t wait to release the news. He spilled the beans to several political insiders on Thursday that his firm’s poll, to be released on Friday, would contain a “big surprise”.
This led to rampant speculation that the surging Coalition Avenir Quebec would have pulled ahead of Premier Jean Charest’s suddenly flailing Parti Libéral du Quebec, dropping them into third place.
That speculation turned out to be overblown, if only by a single percentage point. When top line numbers hit in the wee hours of Friday, they showed the PLQ in a statistical tie for second with the CAQ, and holding their lead over the upstart party by the skin of their teeth.
While the PQ remained steady at 33% in the poll of 3,387 electors, the largest of the campaign to date, the PLQ fell three points from the beginning of the campaign to 28%, while the CAQ rose six points to 27%.
The CAQ’s gains have come almost exclusively at the expense of the Liberals, as corruption becomes a greater issue in the campaign and the CAQ’s recruitment of anti-corruption crusader Jacques Duchesneau contrasts favourably with the Liberal record of sleaze.
Drilling down into the numbers provides no relief for Charest, as his party finds itself squarely in third place among the francophones who will decide the election. Amongst these voters the PQ holds a whopping lead with 40%, trailed by the CAQ at 29% and the Liberals with a dismal 19%. Even Allophones are abandoning their traditional home in the PLQ, with support dropping by nineteen points over the course of a week.
The electorate remains volatile, and many voters are undecided, but the PQ appear to have the upper hand as 71% of their supporters say they will not change their vote. This contrasts favourably to the CAQ, with 50% of their supporters falling into the solid category, and the PLQ, who can count on the loyalty of only 35% of their supporters.
It is also interesting to note that respondents were asked which party would do the best job resolving the student conflict. On this question 33% picked the PQ, 19% picked the PLQ and 12% opted for the CAQ. It seems Charest’s “silent majority” is nowhere close to a majority, as Quebeckers favour the PQ’s proposal of a tuition freeze, repeal of Bill 78 and summit on the future of higher education by close to a two to one ratio.
So what does all of this mean as the leaders head into a series of four televised debates to kick off the last two weeks of the campaign? The debates hold out the potential to drastically alter the course of the race, as the untested Legault will be put through his paces by the seasoned campaigner Charest. If he falters, or Charest significantly exceeds expectations, the swing of non-sovereigntist votes from the Liberals to the CAQ could yet be reversed. But I doubt it.
This poll showed that 68% of Quebeckers want a change of government, with only 22% thinking Charest’s Liberals deserve re-election. Once Quebec’s volatile electorate, so prone to sudden shifts in the past, makes up its mind, it rarely reverses course.
For my money the Liberals are dead. Charest even faces the humbling prospect of being defeated in his home of Sherbrooke, where a riding level poll found him to be trailing his PQ challenger by fifteen points. The iron man of Quebec politics will need to pull one last rabbit out of his hat to avoid going down in the history books as the Premier who didn’t know when to quit. Watching his tired and almost comically lackadaisical campaign thus far, I don’t believe he has it in him.
The burning question for me is whether Legault and the CAQ can use the debates to sideline Charest and make this a “course entre deux” between them and the PQ. They have tremendous momentum now, a critical factor in this fickle province which clearly yearns for an alternative to both of the old parties. But they will need to either sideline the Liberals, which I doubt the wiley old Charest will allow, or start to eat equally into the PQ’s solid support to actually win.
Last May, when Quebeckers similarly cast around for an alternative, they found one in the NDP. The CAQ may share a sheen of newness with the NDP, but that’s where the comparison ends. The NDP’s socially progressive values were a natural fit for this progressive province, the CAQ meanwhile shares everything but a record of corruption with the Liberals.
On tuition, taxation, regulation, and dozens of other issues they either agree with the Liberals, or would move the province further to the right than Charest ever dared. The CAQ, cheered on by ideologically driven media titans like Quebecor’s Pierre-Karl Peladeau, represents nothing so much as a re-birth of the tarnished Liberal brand behind a colourful logo, a nod to anti-corruption and the absurdly false slogan that they are “neither right nor left”.
Right now the largest obstacle to the CAQ riding their wave of momentum into the government benches at the National Assembly is their platform. Quebeckers love the newness and perceived zeal in fighting corruption, and many are so desperate for a change they will swallow hard and vote for a party which does not represent their values because nothing could be worse than more of the same, right?
But for many other Quebeckers the sheen comes swiftly off the rose when they push past the silly slogans and populist promises to reveal a party which would slash cherished social programs and do an even better job than Charest of transferring the contents of the provincial treasury to those who need it least. And bear in mind Charest reduced government revenues by over ten billion dollars during his tenure, mostly in tax cuts for the rich and corporations. A heady feat for anyone to best.
The CAQ, to my mind, are simply Liberals in sheep’s clothing. Their election will mean more of the same, with a superficial scrubbing of the most egregious examples of Liberal corruption.
No one I know admits to liking the PQ, but many will vote for them for one reason alone: the alternatives are both far, far worse.
Meanwhile, it bears mentioning that the student movement appears to be coalescing around Quebec Solidaire, a party former CLASSE press secretary Renaud Poirier St-Pierre described this week as “the only political party which truly represents the values of the student strike”.
As QS sinks in provincial polls thanks to strategic voting, don’t be surprised if they exceed expectations on election night and bag more than the two east-end Montreal ridings they are expected to win. The student movement has produced a generation of Quebeckers unafraid to dream big, and demand better. Something tells me they will largely reject the idea of voting for the lesser of three evils. In close two way races between the PQ and QS in Montreal's east-end, that could make a decisive difference.
As for the Liberals, I think they’re done like dinner. But their regressive, neo-liberal values live on in the CAQ. The Liberals are dead. Long live the Liberals.
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