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Canada CAQ’s election victory is an indictment of Quebec’s political establishment

This file photo shows François Legault, CAQ leader, during a conference at Plaza-Centreville in Montreal on Sept. 28, 2018.

MARTIN OUELLET-DIOTTE/AFP/Getty Images

The Coalition Avenir Québec’s solid victory in Monday’s election constitutes a double indictment of the province’s political establishment by voters seeking to break with past habits.

It is the result of anger toward a Liberal dynasty seen as being detached from average voters. And it also reflects the failure of the Parti Québécois – the usual beneficiary of recurring disaffection with the Liberals – to sell a new generation of Quebeckers on its independence dream.

With less than 20 per cent of the popular vote, the PQ experienced the worst defeat in its history – falling below even the 23 per cent of the vote it won in its very first election, in 1970. Then, it was on the rise. Now, it could be on its deathbed.

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That its trouncing has come at the hands of a former PQ cabinet minister and convert to federalism, CAQ Leader François Legault, demonstrates a deep desire among even nationalist Quebeckers to focus on a different kind of nation-building, one based on improving Quebec’s economy and public services.

Related: CAQ wins historic majority as voters soundly reject old-line Liberals, PQ

Opinion: For Trudeau, Quebec’s Legault is a new kind of challenge

It is far too early to tell whether the CAQ’s victory marks a lasting realignment in Quebec politics. But, together with the surge in support for the far-left Québec solidaire, it sure looks like it might be.

The PQ, with its aging base, appears to have lost its raison d’être. The desperate late-campaign attacks by PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée on Québec solidaire nixed the chance of any rapprochement between the two parties. By establishing itself among young voters as the clear alternative on the left – albeit one with an unrealistic, radical platform – QS now threatens to hasten the PQ’s demise.

While the Liberal Party’s survival is not yet in doubt – it remains solidly anchored in non-Francophone Quebec and can count on a strong organization and fundraising machine – it may need an extended stint in opposition and a slew of new faces in order for francophones to forget what they dislike about it.

Still, Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard can leave office with head high, having aced the impossible assignment of repairing Quebec’s public finances. Unfortunately, he inherited a legacy of previous Liberal corruption scandals and his clinical demeanour made it hard for voters to warm to him.

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Mr. Couillard spent the early part of his mandate making deep cuts in social services. And voters never forgave him for giving free rein to his abrasive Health Minister, Gaétan Barrette, for four years. Mr. Barrette became such a liability for the Liberals that he was neither seen nor heard during the campaign.

With the Liberals and PQ undoubtedly heading into leadership races – for the PQ, its third in as many years – Mr. Legault should benefit in coming months from an opposition in disarray. Lucky for him, because he will have plenty of other challenges on his plate.

While Mr. Legault has sat at the cabinet table before − he was health and education minister under PQ premiers Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry – his own executive will be made up entirely of ministers who have never served in government. While a few will come with impressive private-sector résumés, and some will have served on the opposition benches, they will run the risk of making rookie errors.

No CAQ minister will likely face as much scrutiny as Mr. Legault’s immigration minister, who will be tasked with implementing the party’s plan to cut the number of newcomers the province accepts annually by 20 per cent and overseeing French-language and values tests. The entire plan could backfire if it exacerbates a growing labour shortage in the province or is seen as mean-spirited by voters.

As a former businessman who has long championed efficiency and productivity in government – he earned a reputation for driving his bureaucrats to distraction when he was a cabinet minister – Mr. Legault will face a tough task winning over public-sector unions. He has promised to trim the public service through attrition; government unions campaigned aggressively against the CAQ.

Even so, Mr. Legault will need to build a relationship of trust with public-sector workers if he is to implement his promises, which include introducing full-day kindergarten for four-year-olds and overhauling the delivery of health care. He has also vowed to reverse a $1-billion pay raise made by the Liberals to medical specialists, setting up a potentially nasty clash with the province’s doctors.

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On Monday, Quebeckers fed up with four decades of sterile debates over the province’s place within Canada, decided to try their luck on a new political party. Mr. Legault must now prove that it wasn’t just a reckless roll of the dice on their part.

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