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PQ leader Pauline Marois ponders a question during a news conference Sept. 3, 2012, in Cap-Rouge, Que. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
PQ leader Pauline Marois ponders a question during a news conference Sept. 3, 2012, in Cap-Rouge, Que. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Analysis: PQ won Quebec election, despite underperforming numbers Add to ...

A request for a majority denied, a wave to ride that did not form and a base of supporters that turned out in large numbers decided last night’s Quebec election. Though the Parti Québécois slipped through with a small minority government, the surprising performance of Jean Charest’s Liberals prevented the PQ from winning the majority government that Pauline Marois requested in the last days of the campaign.

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How did each of the four main parties fare last night? Where did they make their gains, where did they suffer defeats and where did their sought-after breakthroughs fail to materialize?

Parti Québécois – A return to its roots but no sweep of the suburbs

With 31.9 per cent support, the Parti Québécois slightly underperformed expectations. Their supporters turned out in respectable numbers, but there was no swing towards the PQ in the closing days of the campaign in response to Ms. Marois‘s demand for a majority government. If anything, the prospect of a PQ majority may have dampened support for the party.

The PQ did make some important gains in eastern Quebec. They were able to sweep the Gaspésie and the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, and won seats in the Eastern Townships and Abitibi-Témiscamingue. These are predominantly francophone and rural parts of Quebec that the PQ has traditionally dominated. These are the types of seats the PQ was always going to win en route to government.

The two seats that the PQ gained in Laval are an example of the kind of seats the party needed to win in order to achieve their majority – but they did not win enough of these. The PQ was unable to make a deeper breakthrough in Laval and the Montérégie and was unable to win seats in the Mauricie and in other parts of francophone Quebec where Liberal incumbents should have been vulnerable.

Had the Parti Québécois been riding a wave of positive momentum, ridings such as Fabre, Maskinongé, Montarville, and Trois-Rivières would have fallen into their laps. Instead, the PQ’s vote share dropped by more than three points compared to 2008. A win is a win for the PQ and they may be able to use it as a springboard towards a majority in the next election, but it is hard to see this as anything but a victory by default for the Parti Québécois.

Liberals – The resilience of incumbents

The Liberals over-achieved to a significant degree, taking 31.2 per cent of the vote when every poll pegged them at less than 30 per cent in the last weeks of the campaign. The Liberal vote simply turned out in far greater numbers than expected and it helped ensure that the Liberals held on to 50 of the 64 seats they occupied when the election was called.

The Liberals made no gains last night. Instead, their role as Official Opposition was salvaged due to the astonishing resilience of their incumbents, particularly in the Chaudière-Appalaches and Mauricie regions of francophone Quebec. These should have flipped to the CAQ and the PQ, especially if Liberal support was indeed below 1 in 5 French-speakers, as the polls suggested. Laval, a bellwether region, mostly stuck with the Liberals as well.

The failure of Mr. Charest to be re-elected in his riding of Sherbrooke stands out as a particularly difficult defeat for the Liberals to swallow. But most of the other high-profile Liberal incumbents managed to be re-elected, so the Liberals should not be flat-footed in the National Assembly when the new government is sworn in.

CAQ – No wave, just a ripple

The CAQ did just about as well as expected with 27.1 per cent of the vote. That kind of performance, however, was exactly what Mr. Legault was hoping to avoid. There was no massive swing towards his party, no great enthusiasm for the brand of change he was peddling. The CAQ had no wave to ride that could make up for its weak organization and sparse resources. And because of the surprising staying power of the Liberals, the CAQ’s vote was highly inefficient.

But the CAQ did moderately well for a new party. They made major gains in Quebec City and in central Quebec, as was expected. But they did not sweep these regions as would have been necessary for Mr. Legault to become the leader of the opposition. The CAQ made a small breakthrough in the suburbs north of Montreal, electing Mr. Legault and Jacques Duchesneau – but not Gaétan Barrette.

The CAQ did not win the seats they were expected to take in the Montérégie and in Chaudière-Appalaches and two of the three PQ floor-crossers they could boast as incumbents were defeated by their former parties.

A big wave might have given the CAQ a chance at a minority government but even a small one would have benefited the party considerably. The CAQ won the seats they were absolutely expected to, but will need to make gains in the Montreal suburbs and in the rural parts of Quebec south of the St. Lawrence River if Mr. Legault is to move up the table from third place.

Québec Solidaire – Growth, but at what cost?

Considering that Québec Solidaire had only one MNA when the election was called and took less than 4 per cent of the vote in 2008, their performance last night was more than adequate. Both of their co-leaders will now be able to represent the party in the National Assembly, and Québec Solidaire put up some very strong numbers in a handful of other ridings. There is no reason to doubt that QS could take a third or fourth seat by the time the next election rolls around.

But the ideal scenario for Québec Solidaire would have been to hold the balance of power. As the PQ only won 54 seats, nine short of a majority, the combined support of Amir Khadir and Françoise David will do very little to help Ms. Marois govern.

Along with Option Nationale, Québec Solidaire is a sovereigntist, left-of-centre party occupying some of the same political ground as the Parti Québécois. In all, at least 22 more seats could have been won by the PQ if voters who cast their ballot for ON or QS had instead given the nod to Ms. Marois. It may be too much to say that Québec Solidaire and, to a lesser extent, Option Nationale cost the PQ leader her majority government – not every supporter of QS or ON would vote PQ if they had no other option. But it is easier to argue that the growth that Québec Solidaire achieved may have swung enough votes to cost the party an important role in a PQ minority government.

The election campaign is over, the next one begins

The previous minority government in Quebec did not last two years. The makeup of the new National Assembly suggests that the current government should not be in power for very long. The Parti Québécois has a lot of work to do among francophone voters in order to put itself in a position to win a majority government. The Liberals will need to prove that they have learned their lessons, while the CAQ has to break out of the political terrain occupied by the old ADQ.

This campaign – 35 days long – felt anything but short. The next one stands to be much longer.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.

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