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Amélie Leclerc, works on her stall at the Marché du Vieux-Port in Quebec City Thursday. (Francis Vachon For the Globe and Mail)
Amélie Leclerc, works on her stall at the Marché du Vieux-Port in Quebec City Thursday. (Francis Vachon For the Globe and Mail)

Seeking clues to Quebec City’s ballot box mystery Add to ...

The voters of Quebec City have been known to show a defiant streak at the ballot box that’s so unpredictable it has been tagged the Quebec City Mystery.

Their loyalties have swung from the Bloc Québécois to the Conservatives to the New Democrats federally, and about as many political options provincially. But voters around the centuries-old Vieille Capitale say nothing is mysterious about their wish for change in the provincial election.

In Quebec City, a battleground that will play a major role in determining the government next Tuesday, polls have placed François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec as voters’ top choice. The lead suggests a paradox: A party promising to cut government fat and take on unions is finding fertile ground in a civil-service town.

Mr. Legault’s message pleases voters like Jocelyn Bluteau, a semi-retired heavy-machine operator. “Quebec is a beautiful province with great natural resources, but we need to clean things up,” he said as he manned a market stall in Quebec’s Lower Town, wearing a baseball cap and red apron. “The CAQ represents change and we need it.”

Jean Charest’s Liberals hold eight of the Quebec City region’s 12 ridings, but incumbents are facing tight races in several of them, which may explain why the Liberal Leader is scheduled to return to the capital this weekend.

Observers say there are reasons Mr. Legault’s message may be resonating in Quebec City.

Behind its picture-postcard surface, the city has always had its fault lines, not just between the traditional white-collar and civil-servant establishment of the Upper Town and the historically blue-collar Lower Town, but between those with government jobs and those without them.

“You would think that a party that proposes cutting public expenses wouldn’t stand a chance of making friends in a civil-service city,” Laval University political scientist Louis Massicotte said. But Mr. Legault’s message could be well-received among the area’s young families and people working in the private sector without pensions or other benefits. “They observe these privileges with resentment. In a smaller city like Quebec City, it’s easier to see these things.”

The tensions that simmer beneath the touristy charm of the capital tend to get amplified through its talk-radio stations, whose highly opinionated hosts like to go to town on government waste and other favourite targets. Hosts like Sylvain Bouchard, morning man at FM93, openly support Mr. Legault’s party on air, and skewer the Parti Québécois.

“People in Quebec City know there’s government fat,” Mr. Bouchard said after his show this week. “We know civil servants who work hard, but know others who don’t work so hard.” (Mr. Bouchard added that in his open-line shows, Mr. Charest is a non-entity. “People have stopped believing him.”)

Quebec City is also an overwhelmingly French-speaking city that tends toward more conservative, pro-military and federalist values than francophone Montreal. The region heavily backed Mario Dumont’s right-of-centre Action démocratique du Québec in 2007, and four of the five ridings still held by the federal Tories in the province are in Quebec City’s suburbs.

Support for sovereignty is comparatively low. If voters are looking for a replacement for Mr. Charest, they might find it more readily in Mr. Legault, a former Péquiste who promises a 10-year moratorium on holding a referendum.

“François Legault’s ambiguity [on national unity] probably reflects voters’ own feelings,” said Mr. Massicotte, adding that he has witnessed a decline in sovereigntist fervour among his students. “They want to change the government, but don’t want to return to the PQ.”

Still, to hear the shoppers and stall-keepers this week at Quebec City’s Marché du Vieux-Port, where vendors offered late-season blueberries, strawberries and corn, the choices for election day showed as much variety as the produce. Some voters, like Martin Tremblay, a 41-year-old maritime pilot, said he supports Mr. Charest’s Plan Nord development project and his hard line with protesting students, and will vote Liberal for the first time in his life.

“I never thought I’d vote like my father,” Mr. Tremblay said. “But the more I travel, the more I see we’re not so badly off here in Quebec.”

Vendor Guylaine Beaudette, on the other hand, admires Pauline Marois’s tenacity and will support the PQ, even though she doesn’t want another referendum. “I don’t have confidence that the people [in the PQ] right now could lead a country.”

Several people said they still hadn’t made up their minds – an undecided constituency that could create surprises on Tuesday. Amélie Leclerc is tempted by Mr. Legault, but worried his ideas are too “drastic.” Standing behind her family’s farmstand, she said that after weeks of carefully following the campaign, she hasn’t been won over by any party. “I’ve voted Liberal for a long time and now I feel a change would be welcome. But is change necessarily going to be for the better?”

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