The Quebec election campaign is coming full circle. It began with a confident Parti Québécois brashly asking voters for a majority government in order to pass its Charter of Quebec Values. That theme soon evaporated, along with the PQ’s lead in the polls, as referendum talk heated up. The PQ and Coalition Avenir Québec tried to shift the focus to alleged Liberal corruption and the personal finances of leader Philippe Couillard. The tone of the campaign went downhill fast. The return of the values charter as a main theme has the PQ warning of the risk of rising religious fundamentalism. PQ Leader Pauline Marois has also blasted Mr. Couillard’s support for bilingualism, calling him a “risk to our language and culture.”
Everyone agrees the election is too close to call.
Konrad Yakabuski: How do you think the negative tone of the campaign is playing with voters? Is it stirring them up or leading them to tune out? Does any party benefit from the mudslinging?
André Pratte: It does look like the Parti Québécois has decided to run the last week on the Charter of Values. It even invited TV celebrity and author Janette Bertrand, 89, to speak at two of its events. Ms. Bertrand explained how she feared that Muslim fundamentalists would overtake majority rights, including her right to attend aqua gym sessions in the building where she lives. The charter issue has become very emotional and the final days of the campaign will be, too. We can expect a polarization of opinions, which should benefit both the PQ and the Liberals. However, an internal poll leaked by the CAQ shows that François Legault's party has gathered support following the second leaders' debate, in which Mr. Legault performed well. The numbers of that poll have been confirmed by the pollster. If the CAQ does get around 20 per cent of the vote (rather than the 13 per cent or 14 per cent seen in previous polls), next Monday's results could be full of surprises.
Antonia Maioni: The PQ has been struggling to get the focus back on identity issues since the first debate, and this last week of the campaign is promising to do just that, with Ms. Marois blaring the Charter horn – promising to invoke the notwithstanding clause to pre-empt a Constitutional challenge – and vowing more protection for the French language. But the mudslinging continues, fuelled in part by media analyses of Mr. Couillard’s and Ms. Marois’ financial affairs, and by the CAQ's return to its anti-corruption rhetoric. The daily revelations and negative tone may well continue up to voting day, but it's unclear if they will stem the CAQ's slide. Unless one of the parties suffers a major faux pas, it's hard to tell at this point what the effect will be on voter choice.
Daniel Turp: The negative tone of the campaign must not please the voters. It certainly does not please me as a citizen who believes that election campaigns should be an occasion to focus on the political programs of parties and their proposals for a better government for Quebec. The mudslinging certainly does not favor what should be the “initial sober thought” of the electorate on what party and leader should be given the reins of power. I do not think that voters will tune out. The three issues (referendum, corruption and the Charter of Values) that have dominated the campaign should attract the voters to the polls. The fact that more than 9 per cent cast a ballot on the first day on the advance polling suggests turnout will equal or surpass the 2012 election turnout of around 75 per cent. If the mudslinging does have some effect, the CAQ and Québec Solidaire would be the main beneficiaries.
Konrad Yakabuski: André, you seem to agree the CAQ has stopped its losses and may even be gaining ground. Antonia, you seem more skeptical. How critical will the CAQ’s final numbers be to the outcome of the election? Will the Liberal’s traditional “ballot box bonus” – the idea that polls tend to underestimate the Liberal vote – manifest itself this time around? And don’t the Liberals still have the best get-out-the-vote operation?
André Pratte: I am not sure about the CAQ. Before they leaked that poll, I thought even though people might have liked François Legault's debate performance, most would not vote for him. In the end, it will depend on what voters see as the ballot question. If that question is: do I want a referendum or not? Or: do I like the PQ's charter or not?, the CAQ might suffer because voting Liberal will look like the only sure way to block Ms. Marois.
Antonia Maioni: It looks like there will be no respite from the negativity, but without a smoking gun that causes considerable damage, at this point all of the he said/she said stories may just become background noise. What remains to be seen is whether the revelations and allegations will propel a polarization of the vote toward the major parties or a last-minute resurgence for the CAQ. Whichever happens, there is no sure way to ascertain the impact of the current negative climate. The CAQ may survive, but it seems unlikely we will see a "wave" or a complete "tune out" either. What's crucial is the extent to which the campaign affects partisans — the voters each party needs to mobilize on election day. There are so many close races in key regions that the calculation for an overall victory is complex, indeed. In fact, the mudslinging may harden negative attitudes toward opponents and propel decided voters to get out in defence of their candidate. We can expect the parties to engage in targeted and strategic get-out-the-vote efforts. Yes, the Liberals have a good machine but the PQ's is impressive and, as the government in power, pretty powerful as well.
Daniel Turp: The CAQ’s final numbers could be critical and have a significant impact if they show francophones switching from the PLQ or the PQ to the CAQ. The internal poll released by the CAQ suggests such a transfer is happening. But the support of 24 per cent of the francophones is not sufficient to allow François Legault’s party to hold on to the seats it won in 2012. The increase of support for the CAQ could even favour the PQ in predominantly francophone ridings. The ballot box bonus could prevent that and the Liberals have in the past (including in 2012) benefited from such a bonus. When it comes to getting out the vote, the PQ will give the Liberals a run for their money in the regions of Lanaudière, Quebec Centre and La Mauricie, where close races are expected.
Konrad Yakabuski: If I were to make a quick assessment, I would say the Liberals have run the steadiest campaign, the PQ the most reactive and reformulated, the CAQ the most energetic but peripatetic, while Québec Solidaire has become a player à part entière. What are your assessments? Who’s "won" the campaign so far? Who’s run the worst campaign?
Antonia Maioni: The Liberal campaign is interesting in that it was not designed on platform or policy, but instead focussed on turning around Mr. Couillard's shaky public persona. He became a sort of human shield to distance the party from Jean Charest's legacy. At the same time, he set out to recast his image as a strong and accessible leader. That being said, the Liberals were helped enormously by how the campaign turned into a referendum on an eventual referendum and the fear factor that took over the headlines. The CAQ has been tilting at anything that can attract attention, but at the end of the day, its support will depend on the extent to which voters still loath the major parties, particularly the Liberals. The PQ's campaign, ostensibly planned to be on the economy and identity, has been caught up in playing catch up, although Ms. Marois' energy and single-mindedness is impressive to observe. Her frustration with Québec Solidaire is palpable, as QS co-spokesperson Françoise David continues to take the kind of moral high ground that appeals to certain left-wing sovereigntist voters.
André Pratte: I agree with your assessment of the Liberal campaign – not perfect, not spectacular, but steady. Mr. Couillard's only bad moments were during the second debate, when he fumbled on language and weakly defended his use of a tax haven while he worked in Saudi Arabia. The PQ ran by far the worst campaign. Ms. Marois never managed to be clear about the possibility of a referendum on separation during a four-year mandate. The Péquistes used their Charter of Values to raise fear and xenophobia, hoping that these odious sentiments would translate into votes. And their campaign was frequently derailed by outside events. The CAQ ran a solid campaign, but its promise to cut taxes and eliminate thousands of government jobs is unrealistic. Finally, Québec Solidaire went after left-leaning voters who voted PQ in 2012, but who are now disappointed with Ms. Marois’s turn to the right.
Daniel Turp: I think the PQ, the Liberals and CAQ were all unable to implement their game plan. The fact that Mr. Couillard had to deal with the tax haven issue, and that Pauline Marois was confronted with the her husband’s role in fundraising for her leadership campaign, diverted their and voters’ attention from the issues they considered important. François Legault’s campaign’s was not very impressive until the second debate. The final days of his campaign will be very different. I believe Françoise David’s campaign did not suffer from any major setbacks. That will not mean more seats and the only dream that could come true for Québec Solidaire would to be to hold the balance of power with its two seats. Winning the campaign is not really important. Winning the election is what counts! Even if you run the worst campaign, you can still win.
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