Critics accused the Parti Québécois of giving into panic and polarizing the province when it sounded a false alarm over the weekend about Ontario voters stealing the Quebec election.
But those inside the PQ were hearing echoes of the 1995 referendum, when there were widespread allegations that illegal ballots tipped the balance against sovereigntists in a narrow win for the No side.
PQ Leader Pauline Marois and her advisers expressed no regrets on Monday for raising the spectre of voter fraud when they accused out-of-province students of trying to “steal” the election.
Little has gone as planned for the PQ in its campaign for the April 7 election, and Monday was no different. The party, along with the Coalition Avenir Québec, had planned to attack the Liberals for failing to address allegations of corruption that plagued the party while it governed from 2003 to 2012.
The day’s program coincided with a rare public appearance by former Liberal leader Jean Charest in Montreal, who had led the province during that time. But instead of setting the agenda, the PQ faced searing attacks for damaging the credibility of a respected, independent public official.
Quebec’s chief electoral officer set the record straight by producing statistics showing nothing irregular or abnormal had occurred and that the number of late voter registrations was actually down from the last election.
Bertrand St-Arnaud, the justice minister and PQ candidate who made the allegation, backtracked, saying the complaint was based on media reports. “There were legitimate questions to be asked,” Mr. St-Arnaud said. “But we are reassured and we have full confidence in the chief electoral officer.”
Mr. St-Arnaud’s strong wording on Sunday still served a purpose for the PQ. Insiders say it provided motivation to the party rank-and-file who are scarred by the indignation they felt in 1995.
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said the PQ manoeuvre was “grotesque.”
“I can’t get over it. It’s literally an attempt to bully an independent institution, the chief electoral officer,” he said. “And this immense balloon was deflated in a matter of hours.”
When the PQ received information about potential voter fraud late last week, organizers say they were on edge because nobody knew the extent of it. When it was reported that an election official in Montreal quit out of frustration over a lack directives to deal with the influx of requests by students registering to vote, the PQ acted in haste claiming that students from Ontario and the rest of Canada were trying to “steal” the election.
PQ Leader Pauline Marois said it was her party’s responsibility to raise the issue.
“It was our job to pose questions,” Ms. Marois said. “We have confidence in the institution, but we must always be vigilant.”
That left CAQ Leader François Legault to concentrate on the Liberal legacy, linking Mr. Couillard to the “disaster” created by Mr. Charest.
“Mr. Couillard still has on his team 18 former Charest ministers who voted 11 times against a public inquiry,” Mr. Legault said, adding that Mr. Charest is to blame for much of the province’s huge debt – which he estimates at $191.7-billion – and high taxes.