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Quebec's Premier elect Philippe Couillard smiles during a news conference at the National Assembly in Quebec City, April 8, 2014. (Mathieu Belanger/REUTERS)
Quebec's Premier elect Philippe Couillard smiles during a news conference at the National Assembly in Quebec City, April 8, 2014. (Mathieu Belanger/REUTERS)

Three reasons the PQ lost, and Couillard’s biggest challenge Add to ...

Considering that support for the Parti Québécois collapsed following Pierre Karl Péladeau’s fist-pumping declaration at the start of the election, there was something peculiar about the three contenders for Pauline Marois’s job taking turns at the podium with defiant speeches even before she conceded defeat.

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The three tenors’ audition included Mr. Péladeau, Jean-François Lisée and Bernard Drainville, who concluded the chest thumping by leading the crowd to chants of “On veut un pays!” (“We want a country.”)

That striking moment Monday night reflected both the tone of an acrimonious, divisive campaign and the existential debates ahead in Quebec politics.

Here are four key take-aways from Monday’s election results:

The PQ’s big problem

After playing identity politics, the PQ now faces an identity crisis of its own.

Some commentators described the campaign as a third referendum by another name. “It was a quasi-referendum,” said François Legault, leader of the third-ranking Coalition Avenir Québec.

A former PQ cabinet minister, Mr. Legault left because he felt that the party was no longer in sync with voters who had no taste for the sovereignty dream. “The imaginary country harms in many ways the actual country,” Mr. Legault said Tuesday.

And in the quasi-referendum campaign that just ended, Quebeckers again sent a clear signal that they didn’t want to hear about the PQ’s raison d’être.

The PQ’s leadership is now open for contest but the problem of such contests is that they start with an audience of the converted, especially in an ideological party like the PQ.

The three pretenders’ eagerness to profess their sovereigntist credentials was necessary, but it struck outsiders as awkward – a reminder of the very reason why some voters are turned off by the PQ.

“The body wasn’t even cold,” veteran TV commentator Jean Lapierre quipped.

Bad tactics or existential issue

The PQ’s internal politics will reflect a broader existential discussion in the province.

Did the party’s misfortune stem only from poor electoral tactics? The PQ tried to play wedge politics but ended up giving a seminar in how not to play that game.

The party consolidated the Liberals’ support among non-francophones while losing some of its more loyal supporters to the CAQ or the left-wing Québec Solidaire party.

The party is now more popular among an older, francophone demographic tranche.

The big question ahead will be whether the PQ will be just a party of one generation, and whether other parties will be able to overcome the population’s ambivalence and fuel the hope of Quebec independence.

For now, it is clear that the party that reshaped political discourse in Quebec will need time to recover from its worst defeat in 44 years.

“Many are already talking about a leadership race. It would be a grave mistake to try to pick a saviour without asking important questions about the party’s objectives,” former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe wrote Tuesday on a blog for Journal de Montréal.

The third player

For four decades, Quebec politics have been polarized between federalists and those who favour independence.

That trend was temporarily broken in the 2007 election, with the emergence of a third option, the Action démocratique du Québec, a party that was nationalist but not keen on another referendum.

On Monday night, the ADQ’s inheritor, Mr. Legault’s CAQ, cemented its presence as a third option, with 23 per cent of the popular vote, edging close to the PQ’s 25 per cent result.

At first glance, Mr. Legault’s CAQ didn’t appear to have progressed much from the 2012 election, when it garnered 27 per cent of the votes, for 19 seats.

The former PQ minister could, however, take comfort in seeing that his party survived the combined attempts by the Liberals and the PQ to re-polarize the electorate.

The CAQ even moved beyond its Quebec City base to open beachheads in the “450,” the suburban ridings around Montreal, bedroom communities where young professionals would be receptive to the party’s message.

The final gift from the PQ

Having repainted large swaths of the Quebec electoral map red, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard now has to distance himself from the scandals of past Liberal administrations.

The Charbonneau inquiry into corruption resumed the day after the election. On Friday, Quebec media are expected to get a court to unseal search warrant applications filed in a police investigation looking at political financing that could embarrass long-time Liberal organizers.

Mr. Couillard, however, will benefit from a final gift from the PQ’s short-lived government.

Mr. Drainville, the father of the values charter, was also the minister responsible for democratic institutions.

One legislation Mr. Drainville introduced was Bill 3, which amended the Quebec Election Act to introduce fixed-date elections.

Ms. Marois broke the spirit of the law by asking Quebeckers to go to the polls this spring, claiming that she had to ask the lieutenant-governor to call a vote because the opposition didn’t want to support her government’s budget.

Now, this means Mr. Couillard has four years to govern and minimize any fallout from the corruption scandals.

He doesn’t have to call Quebeckers back to the polls until October 2018.

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