With the street protests that have engulfed Montreal for the past four months inching off the front pages, the political fallout of this unprecedented “Quebec spring” has remained a puzzle. For opinion-poll watchers, neither the Liberals nor the Parti Québécois has appeared to be making political gains out of the issue, nor has the untested new party Coalition Avenir Québec.On Monday, however, a message began to emerge from the tea leaves – and the results of two provincial by-elections.
For a politician whose clarion call has been the rule of the state rather than the street, the by-elections showed that most voters may not agree with what is happening on the streets, but they are even less impressed with Premier Jean Charest's handling of the ship of state.
While by-elections are usually focused on local matters and plagued by low voter turnout, they can often be a prism through which political support can be gauged.
In the bilingual and multicultural Montreal riding of Lafontaine, the Liberals parachuted in a star candidate, party president Marc Tanguay. The urbane up-and-comer easily won the contest despite the fact the former incumbent, Tony Tomassi, is facing criminal charges related to fraud and corruption.
But the Liberal fiefdom of Argenteuil – which the party held for 46 years – came under siege and was lost to a retired school principal and local PQ organizer, Roland Richer.
If victory in Lafontaine was a sure thing for the Liberals, the story in Argenteuil is an indication of the real challenges facing Mr. Charest's government. The seat was vacated due to a whiff of political controversy: Quebec Labour Minister David Whissell stepped down in 2009 when it was reported he had financial ties to the paving company that had won road contracts in the area; he then vacated his seat in 2011. Added to that was local outrage over perceived mismanagement in the region's hospital.
Political scientists will tell you that by-elections are best seen as thermometers, not barometers, of the body politic. They're indicative of what's going on but not necessarily predictive of what will happen next. Still, Monday's by-elections are particularly revealing. Taken in the context of a wider volatility in Quebec politics, they show an electorate divided, mad as hell, and searching for something else.
The division between Montreal and the rest of Quebec has been an obvious cleavage for decades, but Monday's vote brings into sharp focus the battle lines of the next electoral contest. We are witnessing a retreat of the Charest Liberals to their urban bastions – not unlike what happened to the federal Liberal Party. If the only safe seats are those like Lafontaine, the party is in dire straits indeed. And if ridings like Argenteuil – ground zero of the “silent majority” – are feeling the heat of voter discontent over the Charest government, then the next Quebec election will be difficult to predict.
In last year's federal election, Quebec's volatile mood swept the major parties out of the way in favour of the NDP. And yet, so far, the obvious third-party choice – the CAQ – has failed to capture the same kind of momentum. Instead, the Parti Québécois seems to be making strides in hammering home the “good governance” alternative. As the frustration over the student protests coincides with the ongoing Charbonneau commission on corruption in the construction industry, the stage is set for a very risky electoral season in Quebec.