Newly-formed third party CAQ rises in Québec

A new poll out in Québec Friday from Leger Marketing shows an increasingly three-way race in advance of the snap September 4 election.

The two longstanding parties in Québec are essentially tied.  The sovereigntist (and more leftist) Parti québécois (PQ) wins 32% of Québécois voters, while the federalist (and more centrist) Parti libéral du Québec (Liberal Party, or PLQ) of premier Jean Charest wins 31%.  Charest, who has led Québec since 2003, is seeking his fourth consecutive mandate.

But the real surprise is the newly-formed Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ), which got 27% — although the CAQ led polls briefly when it was formed in January 2012, it had steadily lost support.

And, perhaps, for good reason — it’s a relatively aimless group that has been vague about its position on key issues, such as a proposed hike in student tuition fees.  It’s been just as cagey on more fundamental stands: whether its economic program is right or left, or whether it is more sovereigntist or federalist.

Founded by François Legault (pictured above, left), a longtime minister in the PQ governments of the 1990s and a leader of the pro-independence movement in the 1995 sovereignty referendum, the CAQ incorporates some other PQ stragglers and much of the old Action démocratique du Québec, the party led by Mario Dumont that made significant gains in the 2007 Québec election (only to watch those gains evaporate in the subsequent 2008 election).

Yet there’s precedent from recent Québécois elections to indicate that voters are weary of both the Liberals and the PQ:

  • As noted, in 2007, Mario Dumont’s ADQ won 41 seats to Québec’s 125-seat Assemblée nationale, leaving Charest’s Liberals with a 48-seat minority government and pushing the PQ (with just 36 seats) out as the official opposition.
  • In the 2011 general election, the progressive New Democratic Party won 59 of Québec’s 75 ridings for seats in the House of Commons.  The NDP, led by the late Jack Layton, had previously not been a factor in Québec’s federal elections; in 2011, it reduced the PQ’s federal counterpart, the Bloc québécois to just four seats, despite its domination of Québec’s federal delegation since 1993.

Like the ADQ in 2007, the CAQ is leading polls in and around Québec City.  But also like in 2007, anglophone Quebeckers are still overwhelmingly in favor of the Liberals, the PQ has a steady lead among francophone voters, and the CAQ lags behind both parties in and around Montréal.  That result would lead to three-way deadlock that favors a minority Liberal government — unless the CAQ can somehow break through to the core supporters of either the PQ or the Liberals.

Two recent developments indicate that the CAQ could pull off that kind of upset.

Legault has emphasized the recruitment of high-profile candidates, which paid off last week when popular anti-corruption figure and former Montréal police chief Jacques Duchesneau (pictured above, right) announced last week that he would stand as a candidate for the CAQ.  That put Charest on the defensive — his government is under investigation for corruption charges related to tying government construction contracts to political cash.  Meanwhile, prominent anglophone Quebecker Robert Libman gave his support to the CAQ and trashed Charest for using scare tactics against the CAQ.

But the election remains three weeks away and it’s unclear if the CAQ may be surging too soon — to say nothing of whether voters trust Legault and his slippery platform enough to make him premier.

Like the ADQ before it, the CAQ has taken a comparatively center-right view on economic matters (the Québecois electorate is probably Canada’s most leftist), and Legault has indicated that the CAQ would like to cut taxes in the province and reduce the size of Québec’s strong state sector in favor of private industry.

But much of the CAQ’s platform seems more pro-business than fiscally conservative — the kind of state capitalism that would use Québec’s resources to boost businesses rather than shrink the government entirely.  Legault’s platform would transform the provincial government into an active market participant, by using some funds from the province’s pension fund to boost natural extraction throughout Québec and by preventing foreign takeovers of provincial businesses:

“We don’t have polarizing left-right [economic] debates in Quebec,” said Martin Coiteux, a specialist in macroeconomics at Montreal’s elite business school, the Hautes Etudes Commerciales.

“The CAQ certainly doesn’t have a leftist program, but it is not a program of the right either, at least in the classic sense of the term.”

On some issues, the CAQ is firmly to the left of his rivals: for example, Legault wants to usurp environmental regulatory powers from Canada’s federal government in order to implement a province-wide ban on exporting asbestos (the province is the last major supplier of asbestos in North America), a move that environmentalists have cheered.  Neither the Liberals nor the PQ have called for such a ban.

The CAQ’s helter-skelter platform is a far cry from the traditional small-government conservatism of the federal Conservative Party led by Stephen Harper.  Harper, for his part, will be watching closely to see whether a vaguely pro-market, budget-cutting message can break through.  But he has no interest in picking a horse in the election — Charest served in the 1990s as the leader of the federal Progressive Conservative party, which merged with Harper’s own Canadian Alliance in 2003 to form today’s Conservative Party, and Charest has been an effective champion for a decade for the cause of federalism, keeping thorny Québec independence issues at bay for the Harper government.

Speaking of the federalism issue, the CAQ has called for a ten-year moratorium on any future referendum on Québécois independence in a campaign that’s seen even Marois downplaying her party’s separatist view.  In 2007, the ADQ successfully positioned itself as “autonomist” — neither federalist nor sovereigntist.  The CAQ is trying to play a similar game — just nationalist enough to appeal to soveriegntists without alienating federalists who fear the consequences of an independent Québec.  Charest has, so far, been successful in keeping anglophone Quebeckers in line by pointing to Legault’s separatist past, but Libman’s move last week may yet change that.

Similarly, in contrast to the clear positions that Charest and PQ leader Pauline Marois have taken on the fight over proposed student tuition fees (Marois would scrap the tuition hikes; Charest passed an emergency law to cripple the increasingly strident protests last May in Montréal), Legault has said that neither Marois nor Charest have credibility on tuition fees.  Legault seems to be in favor of some increase, but has not been incredibly forthcoming on details.

It’s been a very good week for the CAQ. But Legault faces significant hurdles in convincing a skeptical electorate, and with polls showing the CAQ as a rising threat, he’ll face those hurdles with increased scrutiny from his rivals and the media.  A CAQ victory remains a difficult task.

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