The fabled Quebec “ballot box effect” kicked in Monday night, but instead of benefiting the Liberals, as it has for years, it was Mario Dumont and the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ) who won the support of the five or six per cent of people who normally conceal their true voting preference from pollsters, because they are unwilling, or even ashamed, to reveal it. Liberal support was no higher voting day than it showed in opinion surveys throughout the election campaign.

The surge in ADQ support was the surprise, thrusting Mario Dumont into the role of leader of the official opposition in a minority Parliament. Otherwise the story of Quebec election 2007 (round one?) was the fragmentation of the vote in what was, until Monday, a two party system.

About three in ten Quebec voters stayed home. The Green Party went from not even one half of one per cent in the 2003 election, to four per cent, and Quebec Solidaire took four per cent as well.

Especially, disaffected voters left the two main parties for the ADQ, propelling it to 41 seats, over ten times as many as the four the ADQ won in the last election, on the strength of an increase in their popular vote of 13 per cent, from 18 per cent to 31 per cent.

The Liberals lost big, 24 seats fewer than in 2003, and a 13 per cent slide in their share of the popular vote, from 46 per cent to 33 per cent.

By finishing third, with 28 per cent of the vote, the main casualty of election 2007 was the Parti Québécois (PQ), which fell from 48 seats to 36, in losing five per cent of its share of the popular vote.

In his post-election press conference leader André Boisclair ruled out sovereignty as a short-term option for Quebec. By implication, he blamed the PQ slide in the polls under his leadership — from a 20 point advance over the Liberals, then down to a third place election finish — on the strategy of calling for a referendum to follow a PQ electoral victory. This approach was not of his making though, perhaps fatally for his stewardship, he did nothing to change it.

The PQ cannot help but notice that the emergence of the two small parties cut into their support. Indeed, if the PQ had been able to gather up that support, it would have formed a minority government. But such reasoning serves no purpose. It is more important to figure out who it is the PQ wants to represent, and why they are failing to reach their electorate.

Political scientist Vincent Lemieux of Laval University pioneered the study of political parties in Quebec, and he has theorized that parties challenging the Liberals have a limited life cycle. The Union Nationale disappeared, replaced by the PQ. Now the ADQ threatens the very existence of the PQ, should the electorate polarize against the Liberals again.

The protest vote hurt the two main parties, but the constant factor in the election, as in Quebec politics generally, was the appeal of Quebec nationalism. The ADQ found its voters by speaking to Quebec nationalist sentiments.

Mario Dumont accused his rivals of wanting to divide Quebec between federalists and sovereignists. Dumont called for Quebec to affirm its identity, end fruitless disputes, and to unite behind the ADQ. His nationalist project was expressed as building autonomy for Quebec within Canada, and seeking whatever powers were needed from Ottawa.

The ADQ wants to see Quebec adopt its own constitution (Why not? BC has one).

Dumont combines a sort of Mike Harris, anti-big city, right wing populism, with traditional Quebec conservative appeal to people in small towns and rural areas. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate the sophistication of Mario Dumont.

Yes, he comes from a farm background but he attended Concordia University where he was a student at the School of Community and Public Affairs, one of the best places in Canada to get an education, along with a degree. At the School he is remembered for taking advantage of the small class sizes, and the close, frequent contact with professors to hone his debating skills.

As president of the young Liberals of Quebec, he left the party over its constitutional position, and with prominent Liberal Jean Allaire, founded the ADQ as a direct challenge to Premier Robert Bourassa. When Allaire fell ill, Dumont inherited the party leadership and won his seat on the first try. Monday was his fourth victory and it marks the first time the ADQ will have official party status.

The 37-year-old, Dumont, a father of three is determined, capable and experienced. Moreover, he has made himself into a popular figure in Quebec, the only politician known by his first name alone.

When the National Assembly convenes in Quebec City, the party house leaders will begin the parliamentary business of establishing the operating principles for a minority government. The egos of the party leaders, and the need to feed the partisan spirits of their followers to maintain their own leadership will surely lead to arguments, disputes, bad blood and eventually an election, probably in about 18 months, if federal politics provides any guide to what is uncharted waters for Quebec, which last had a minority Parliament in 1878.

Interestingly, in election 2007, the ADQ placed second in 45 ridings. Combine that with the 41 they won, and that makes them the default choice for next time if the Charest government continues to disappoint. Nobody knows this better than Charest and Boisclair.

The surprise showing of the ADQ did not result from a big advertising buy, or a select team of high profile candidates. It came from anger against the two main parties. Mario Dumont put himself in a position to benefit from the widespread disaffection of Quebec voters. His challenge will be to make sure he and the ADQ do not soon fall victim to the same voter sentiments that brought voters to his camp.

To form a government, Dumont and the ADQ need more than a ballot box effect; they will have to earn voter respect — the kind that makes respondents proud to announce their voting choice when public opinion surveyors come enquiring.

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...