When a reporter asked François Legault on Tuesday about his 2018 promise to reform Quebec’s electoral system – a pledge he has since broken – the province’s Premier turned the question on its head. He pointed out that during this year’s election campaign he had made the opposite promise: not to reform the electoral system.
This time, he said, he planned to “respect that promise.”
Mr. Legault made his remarks after Monday’s provincial election results revived controversy over the fairness of Quebec’s first-past-the-post voting procedure.
His party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, won 90 seats out of 125 with just over 40-per-cent support. Three of the four opposition parties have cried foul after being left with crumbs in the Quebec National Assembly, despite their respectable showings in the popular vote.
Controversies about the voting system aren’t new. What is unusual this time is that it was the CAQ that initiated the latest round of proposed changes, said Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, a former Speaker of the National Assembly.
Mr. Charbonneau, who now heads Mouvement démocratie nouvelle, a group seeking a more representative way of voting, said in an interview that the issue had been lying fallow for a few years until he was contacted in 2015 by the CAQ, then a new opposition party. “They’re the ones who relaunched the debate,” he said.
Regarding Mr. Legault’s postelection remarks, he added: “We suggest he does like he did last time and not respect his promise.”
The CAQ landslide was facilitated by a splintered political landscape with five competitive parties, most of which scored remarkably similar popular-vote tallies of about 15 per cent. But Quebec’s winner-take-all system – which it shares with the rest of the country – gave each party radically different seat totals: The Liberals won 21, Québec solidaire 11 and the Parti Québécois only three. The Conservatives were left empty-handed.
“It’s a historic gap between the popular vote and the number of seats, and that’s very problematic for democracy in Quebec,” PQ Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon said at a news conference Tuesday.
Conservative Leader Éric Duhaime concurred. During his concession speech Monday night and in later interviews, he said the province is suffering from “democratic distortion.”
Mr. Legault insisted he had won a legitimate mandate, having received a plurality of the vote.
“There’s no electoral system that’s perfect,” he added.
Mr. Charbonneau recalled that his group and the CAQ were actively involved in efforts that led Mr. Legault, the PQ and Québec solidaire to issue a joint pledge in May, 2018, to reform the voting system. “It’s no longer time for debate, it’s time for action, it’s time for this project to become reality,” Mr. Legault said at the time.
Five months later, he won a first mandate with a 74-seat majority government, despite having received only 37 per cent of the popular vote. Along the way, his enthusiasm for electoral reform faded.
In 2019, the Legault government tabled Bill 39, which proposed mixed-member proportional representation, where 80 ridings would still be contested under the old system, while the other 45 would be decided depending on the popular vote in different regions. But, Mr. Charbonneau said, the bill included a hurdle that had not previously been discussed: a requirement that a referendum be held to ratify the change.
The referendum could have passed where other such ballot measures had failed, including three in British Columbia alone since 2005. In Quebec, 70 per cent of respondents in a 2019 poll said they wanted the Legault government to respect its voting-reform promise.
But after Bill 39 passed second reading, the government let it die on the standing orders. “We listened to the population, it doesn’t interest them … except a few intellectuals,” Mr. Legault said during this year’s election campaign.
Mr. Charbonneau said the Premier’s argument was “a crude falsehood. … He’s taking the population for imbeciles.”
With a majority government, the Premier could still bolster his legacy by changing the system for the 2026 election, Mr. Charbonneau said. “He still has the time to do it.”
The CAQ and the Liberals now hold 111 of the 125 legislature seats. They have no incentive to reform the voting process that benefited them.
With no prospects of a change soon, the other opposition leaders are now seeking for their parties to be recognized as parliamentary groups, a status that confers research budgets and speaking time in the National Assembly. But it’s normally given only to parties with at least 12 seats, or 20 per cent of the popular vote.
Mr. Plamondon, the PQ leader, asked that his party be given a budget and an allocation of parliamentary questions in proportion to the PQ’s popular vote, “otherwise that would be a willful breach of democracy.”
As a consolation prize, the parties will still receive public financing based on their popular support, of $1.71 for each ballot cast in their favour.
Quebec’s partisan field may be fractured into five today, but the province had a tendency to elect majority governments with minority vote totals even when the Liberals and the PQ ruled the province as a duopoly. The last “true” majority in the National Assembly, when a party won more than 50 per cent of the seats and votes, was in 1985, noted Patrick Déry, deputy editor of the Montreal-based Policy Options magazine.
Back then, he said, Guy Lafleur had only just retired from professional hockey for the first time.