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Premier Jean Charest delivers a speech the Quebec Liberal Party convention on Oct. 21, 2011. (MATHIEU BELANGER/Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)
Premier Jean Charest delivers a speech the Quebec Liberal Party convention on Oct. 21, 2011. (MATHIEU BELANGER/Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

Crunching Numbers

Will by-election boost Charest before battle with Legault begins in earnest? Add to ...

Though François Legault launched his new Coalition-Avenir-Quebec party last week, voters in the eastern Quebec riding of Bonaventure will not see CAQ on the ballot when they vote in a by-election on Dec. 5. That is good news for Jean Charest.

The leaders of the two main parties in Quebec’s National Assembly have both been unbalanced by the new arrival on the political scene. The by-election that was forced by the resignation of Liberal cabinet minister Nathalie Normandeau has come at a difficult time for both Mr. Charest and Pauline Marois.

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Both the Liberals and the Parti Québécois have dropped precipitously in the polls, with the two parties both scoring less than 30 per cent support in the most recent surveys by CROP and Léger Marketing. Unless things turn around, Mr. Charest is headed for defeat in the next general election and Ms. Marois may be booted out of the PQ leadership even before that.

But the Liberals may get a bit of good news on Dec. 5, as a poll conducted by Segma Recherche in Bonaventure has found that their candidate, Damien Arsenault, is leading the pack with 52 per cent. The PQ’s Sylvain Roy trails with 36 per cent, while Québec Solidaire’s Patricia Chartier and the ADQ’s Georges Painchaud are far behind with 6 and 5 per cent support, respectively.

While a win is a win, this vote share would be the lowest the Liberals have taken in the riding since 1998, when Ms. Normandeau was first elected. She took 64 per cent of the vote in the 2008 provincial election, outpacing her PQ rival by 35 points. According to the Segma poll, that margin has shrunk by more than half.

But a seven-point gain for the Parti Québécois in Bonaventure, despite the party’s languishing in the provincial polls, may not be enough to bolster Ms. Marois’s troubled leadership, particularly when this same Segma poll found that Mr. Roy would likely win if Gilles Duceppe was head of the PQ.

The last time a by-election was held in Quebec was in November 2010, when the PQ stole away the riding of Kamouraska–Témiscouata from the Liberals. They overcame a 33-point gap in that by-election, eking out a win with 37 per cent to 36 per cent for the Liberals. The victory put a damper on a campaign against Ms. Marois’s leadership, and she went on to score a 93 per cent approval rating in a leadership vote the following spring.

But does the Segma poll, with its plus-or-minus 4.9 per cent margin of error, tell us all we need to know about what will happen in Bonaventure, a riding considered to be a Liberal fortress?

Swinging 2008’s result in Bonaventure by the same proportion that polls have swung province-wide since that election indicates the Liberals are well placed to hold on to the riding. A proportional swing of this nature would give the Liberals 55 per cent to the PQ’s 28 per cent, not dissimilar to the Segma poll’s results.

However, using this same method in the Kamouraska–Témiscouata by-election last year would not have predicted a PQ victory (as it also would have been stumped when ridings changed hands in Rivière-du-Loup in 2009 and Vanier in 2005). A CROP poll released during that by-election campaign predicted a Liberal win, but by the slimmest of margins: 34 per cent to 32 per cent for the Parti Québécois. Considering that poll’s margin of error, the forecast was quite close to the result, except for identifying the winner.

A poll for the by-election in Hull in 2008, on the other hand, was on the mark in predicting a Liberal win, as would have been a proportional swing based on province-wide polls dating from the same period (this proportional swing would accurately predict 80 per cent of by-elections since 2003, a good sign for the Liberals in Bonaventure).

The Bonaventure by-election will be the 21st held since Jean Charest was first elected more than eight years ago. Over that time span, the Liberals have had a 7-11 record (not having ran candidates when newly minted leaders André Boisclair and Pauline Marois stood for election), worse than the PQ’s 12-8 record. Ten PQ seats have been up for grabs in by-elections since 2003, and the PQ has held on to all ten of them. The Liberals, on the other hand, have lost three of the nine by-elections in which they were the incumbent party (two to the PQ, one to the ADQ).

In addition to the 33-point gap that was overcome in Kamouraska–Témiscouata in November 2010, the PQ also erased a 21-point gap in Laurier–Dorion in September 2004. But the PQ is currently down in the polls compared to the last election, whereas they stood above the previous election’s results when they stole Kamouraska–Témiscouata and Laurier–Dorion from the Liberals. This might put the 35-point margin in Bonaventure out of the PQ’s grasp.

And that may turn out to be very significant for Jean Charest. The Liberals currently occupy 64 of the 125 seats in the National Assembly, and if they lose Bonaventure the opposition will occupy the other 61. The emergence of the CAQ then becomes a real danger to Mr. Charest, as there is talk that François Legault may be able to pluck a few MNAs away from the Liberals (as well as the PQ). He only needs two from the government benches to turn Jean Charest’s majority into a minority – making a Liberal win in Bonaventure all the more important.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com

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