Charest makes it official: Québec goes to the polls September 4

Jean Charest, Québec’s premier since 2003 (pictured above), has dissolved his province’s Assemblée nationale and called a snap election for September 4 — just 33 days away.

His Parti libéral du Québec (Liberal Party, or PLQ) will be seeking its fourth consecutive mandate and Charest will be leading the PLQ for the fifth consecutive time since 1998, when he first left Canadian federal politics for Québecois provincial politics.  He’s been a decade-long fixture of the province’s government, and he starts out the race with even odds at best.

His main opposition is the sovereigntist (and leftist) Parti québécois (PQ), who leader, Pauline Marois, makes Charest look like a star campaigner.

But further to the right is former PQ minister François Legault, whose Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), a new center-right party formed only earlier this year, will attempt to pull votes from both the PQ and the PLQ.  Further to the left, Québec solidaire will also attempt to pull seats from the PQ and, to a lesser extent, the PLQ.

So what are the starting positions for the parties?

A look at polling: PLQ, PQ basically tied; minority government very likely

The always-excellent ThreeHundredEight blog posted new projections this morning, despite a puzzling lack of polls in Québec over the past two months.  Their model predicts that, if the election were held today, Marois’s PQ would win around 34.4% of the vote and 60 seats in the 125-seat assembly to 32.6% and 52 seats for Charest’s PLQ.  It’s not incredibly surprising to see such a close race, given that the two parties have traded hypothetical leads for over a year.

The CAQ would win 19.5% and 11 seats — a significant drop from earlier this year; when it first formed, the CAQ led polls with around 40% of the vote, but has dropped steadily and stabilized around 20%.  Québec solidaire would win 6.7% and just 2 seats.

So long as the CAQ’s support doesn’t fall through completely, it seems likely that either the PLQ or the PQ will form a minority government.  Despite Legault’s former ties to the PQ, the CAQ is much closer ideologically to the PLQ — accordingly, it seems likelier that the CAQ would support a PLQ minority government rather than a PQ minority.  Either scenario could lead to an early collapse of such a minority government, and so we’d see yet another election in a year or two.

The first actual poll out this morning— from Léger Marketing — demonstrates some of the longtime trends of politics in Québec:

  • 39% of francophones support the PQ, while 24% support the PLQ and 24% support the CAQ.
  • 59% of anglophones support the PLQ, with just 11% supporting the CAQ and 10% supporting the PQ.
  • The PLQ is strongest in Québec City, winning 37% there to 26% for the CAQ and 22% for the PQ (QS does its best here, winning 10%).
  • The PLQ is weakest in rural Québec, where the PQ leads 34% to 30%, with 23% for the CAQ.
  • Montreal lines up fairly much in sync with the province-wide numbers: 34% for the PQ, 32% for the PLQ and 19% for the CAQ.
  • Nearly 7 out of 10 PLQ and PQ voters say that their choice is definite, while only 42% of CAQ say the same — meaning we will see both Marois and Charest fighting hard to peel away some of the CAQ’s soft supporters.
  • Voters seem to think poorly of each of their three potential premiers — 23% say Charest would make the best premier, while 21% say Marois, 16% say Legault, and 31% say they don’t know.

Key issues: federalism vs. sovereignty, student protests over tuition, PLQ corruption

Federalism will be a central issue in the election, with Charest championing himself as the sole federalist in the election –and he has, by and large, worked with both Liberal and Conservative governments at the federal level to stabilize the federalism issue.  Marois, the sovereigntist, has refused to say that she would call a referendum on Québec’s independence at all — indeed, she has played down the sovereigntist aspect of the campaign to focus on the PLQ’s corruption and economic issues. That approach, in tandem with Marois’s less-than-engaging style, has encouraged rumblings from within the PQ caucus to take a harder line on the sovereignty issue — win or lose in September, it is not difficult to see the PQ dividing into camps between “hawks” and “doves.”

Legault, for his part, has called for a 10-year moratorium on any new referendum, in order to allow Québec to focus on more bread-and-butter issues, but Charest will use his past role in the PQ to argue that Legault is as dangerous as Marois on federalism in attempts to win back support from anglophones and federalist francophones.

The recent student strikes over a proposed tuition fee increase will also likely play a key role in the election.  Charest, notoriously, pushed through Bill 78 in response to the sometimes raucous student protests last spring — the bill places limitations and notice requirements for certain gatherings through July 2013.  Québec voters are split, essentially evenly, on the student protests, but the heavy-handed move on the part of Charest’s government earned international criticism.  Although the protests died down for the summer, students returning for the fall may raise the volume on this issue as the campaign ends.  Marois has been, generally, much more supportive of the student protestors.

Finally, there’s certain to be a fatigue factor with Charest and the PLQ, amplified by an ongoing inquiry by the Charbonneau Commission as to whether Charest’s government awarded government construction contracts in exchange for political financing.

The economy, in general, as well as Charest’s Plan Nord, a development strategy to unlock northern Quebec’s economic potential through developing its natural resources (a plan that Inuit and environmentalists alike have panned), are also likely to be top issues.

Federal political considerations: NDP surge gives CAQ, leftists hope; Harper to remain (mostly) neutral

A further consideration is the most recent federal election — for two decades, the Bloc québécois (the federal analogue to the PQ) had won a majority (between 44 and 54) of Québec’s seats in Canada’s federal House of Commons, with the federal Liberals trailing far behind in second and the federal Conservatives barely registering.  In 2011, however, the social democratic New Democratic Party rode a wave of frustration in Québec and a last-minute surge in support to win 59 out of a total 75 federal seats.  Although the NDP has no province-level party in Québec, it is potentially a cause for hope for the CAQ or for the more social democratic Québec solidaire to break out before September 4.

Federally, the Liberal Party generally supports the PLQ in Québec, but not in any formal way.  Likewise, given Charest’s one-time role as the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party at the federal level in the 1990s (which ultimately merged into today’s federal Conservative Party), his relationship with Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper is warmer than you might expect.  Harper and his federal allies, however, will be keen to see if the CAQ can attract support from a truly center-right platform this time around in Québec.

And although there will be time to get into the details of individual ridings — Éric Grenier of ThreeHundredEight has a smart rundown in The Globe and Mail — the three-way nature of the race means that few seats are truly safe, including the premier’s own seat (in Sherbrooke, which was close in 2008 as well, will be contested by former longtime Bloc québécois MP Serge Cardin — Charest is already holding events there) and the riding that CAQ leader Leagualt has chosen (L’Assomption) is currently held by the PQ.

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