Desperate times call for desperate measures, and calling an election in the heat of summer pretty much sums it up for the Liberal government of Jean Charest. An unpopular premier, a lacklustre record, a proven inability to deal with crises and a looming corruption scandal – all the signs should point to an incumbent government running scared. And yet, if the prognosticators are correct, the 2012 Quebec contest may be too close to call. What gives?
The horse-race answer is a simple one: Just take a look at the electoral map and do the math. Quebec is a province of regions, dominated by the greater Montreal area. In that vote-rich metropolis, the Liberals can count on an almost 3-to-1 margin over the Parti Québécois because anglophones, and many allophones, feel they have nowhere else to go. This virtual lock on a chunk of seats gives the Liberals a solid start in any electoral contest. And this time round, things are made even more complicated for the PQ by the fact that it may be outflanked on the left by Québec solidaire, led by Amir Khadir, who put the full weight of his party’s support behind the student protests last spring. He is likely to keep his Mercier seat, and party co-spokesperson Françoise David has a shot at winning the PQ stronghold of Gouin.
Off the island, the battle between the Liberals and PQ for the hearts and minds of francophone voters will be complicated by the new and unpredictable Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), led by François Legault and a mix of former sovereigntists, right-wing Action démocratique du Québec relics and opportunists from across the political spectrum. The PQ has a significant edge in support among francophone voters throughout the province, but the regional breakdown is such that victory – not to mention a majority – is far from a sure thing. The CAQ may give the Liberals a run for their money around Quebec City, and the PQ may pull ahead of the Liberals in a few key battlegrounds in central Quebec, but unless there is a shift of the magnitude of the NDP’s orange wave, the battle will be fought on the margins and in the trenches.
Still, many of those trenches involve sitting cabinet ministers, and Mr. Charest’s own riding of Sherbrooke is very much in play. The shocking defeat in the Argenteuil by-election has visibly shaken the Liberals – leading to some ministerial retirements – while at the same time buoying the PQ’s recruitment efforts among high-profile candidates like journalists Jean-Francois Lisée and Pierre Duchesne. Not only will these candidates bring new blood to the party, but their communication skills will be in high demand, given the less-than-stellar performance of PQ Leader Pauline Marois.
But the horse race is not the entire story. Despite the sunny weather, the Quebec electorate remains in a volatile and dark mood. Many voters show little enthusiasm for any party, which means the issues that dominate the campaign may be determinant. The Liberals will be banking on negative views of Ms. Marois, as showcased in their new advertising featuring the pot-banging PQ Leader, while the opposition parties make hay of the allegations of corruption that mar the government’s record. Amid all this political noise, however, no single issue on either the left-right or sovereigntist-federalist divide has yet emerged as a clear ballot-box question to unlock the logjam. That, rather than the clash of egos that currently dominates the headlines, may be the determining factor when voters enter the polling booth after the long, hot summer.
Antonia Maioni is associate professor of political science at McGill University.