Skip to main content

Even though the 72-per-cent approval rating Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre enjoyed in late 2015 likely no longer holds, many consider the next mayoral race his to lose.Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

Montreal is in the throes of a municipal party leadership contest for the first time in nearly 20 years as the official opposition at city hall seeks a chief willing to take on Denis Coderre, the city's jovial and populist mayor.

Projet Montréal, a political party trying to stoke Montreal's economy by slowing down the urban exodus and improve sustainable transportation, on Monday launched a three-month leadership race ahead of municipal elections next year.

It's the first time the city has seen the contested leadership of a municipal party since the struggle over the succession of Jean Doré of the Montreal Citizens' Movement in the late 1990s. Unlike many other Canadian cities, Montreal has party politics at the municipal level. But over the years, they have largely consisted of groups built around a mayoral candidate, rather than established parties.

The challenge for the winner will be to try show they're every bit as charismatic as Mr. Coderre, while still mastering the big municipal issues.

The former federal Liberal cabinet minister has cultivated a back-slapping, just-one-of-the-guys style that sees him appear regularly at public events – ringing the giant goal bell amid fans at a recent Montreal Impact soccer game, for example. And even though the 72-per-cent approval rating he enjoyed in late 2015 likely no longer holds, many consider the next race his to lose.

"We think that it's important for the next leader to combat the notoriety of Denis Coderre," said Jimmy Zoubris, Projet Montréal's vice-president. "He's pretty much everywhere. There's not a flashbulb this guy doesn't like."

The contest comes at a crucial time for Montreal, which has seen its reputation and profile stumble in recent years, despite its popularity with tourists.

The city is still reeling from the corruption fallout that forced Gérald Tremblay, Mr. Coderre's precedessor as mayor, to quit in 2012, with public trust in municipal officials shaken. At the same time, efforts to repair its aging infrastructure are placing enormous pressure on the city's finances, while testing the patience of residents.

Montreal also continues to struggle to keep up with Canada's other major cities economically. A working group mandated by city hall earlier this year to suggest ways to make the city more attractive to business found that the region's economic growth has trailed that of other metropolitan areas in the country over the past 25 years.

Mr. Coderre has weathered his own share of controversy. He was lambasted both at home and abroad late last year when his administration backed the dumping of an estimated five billion litres of sewage into the St. Lawrence River. He was criticized again for plans to spend upwards of $200-million on projects related to Montreal's 375th birthday celebrations. Most recently, the dozens of major construction projects speckled across the city are causing havoc on street-level traffic and prompting people to ask whether the city is conducting proper planning oversight.

"One of his flaws that is becoming clearer and clearer is that he is a little bit impulsive," said Robert Libman, a former municipal politician who now runs a real-estate development consultancy. "He makes a lot of political decisions on the spot and then responds a few days later. If it provokes controversy, he backs off."

The tide can shift quickly in Quebec elections, but without a star candidate, there's "not a chance" Projet Montréal will win the mayoralty 14 months from now, Mr. Libman said. Others disagree, saying the party has a widespread appeal to voters interested in environmental and left-of-centre politics of the kind espoused by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

"It's a very powerful phenomenon," said Harold Chorney, a political economist at Concordia University.

Projet Montréal has been without a permanent leader since 2014, when its founder, Richard Bergeron, left to sit as an independent. Luc Ferrandez, mayor for the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, has acted as interim leader but said he won't run for the top job. François Limoges, a strategic communications specialist who currently sits on city council, is so far the lone declared candidate for leader.