Pity the Quebec elector. Exercising your right to vote is rarely as simple as picking the candidate you like best. Marking your ballot involves weighing the undesired consequences of your action as much as choosing your preferred party. It helps to have a doctorate in game theory.
What do you do, for example, if you want to prevent a third referendum but are not crazy about handing power back to the same scandal-plagued Liberals you booted from office only 18 months ago?
If you favour a secular charter governing religious expression in the public sphere but do not like either the Parti Québécois's blanket ban or the hands-off approach of the Liberals?
Canadians in every province are regularly confronted with electoral choices that are less than clear cut. But nowhere has strategic voting become as necessary and routine as in Quebec. Thursday's final leaders' debate before the April 7 vote has only complicated the equation for many Quebeckers.
Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault, considered the debate's hands-down winner, sought to establish doubt in the minds of anti-referendum Caquistes, who polls show have been gravitating toward Philippe Couillard's Liberals. "Voting Liberal is not blocking the PQ," Mr. Legault said in his closing statement. "It's blocking the future of Quebec."
PQ Leader Pauline Marois all but declared there would be no referendum if her party wins. But she could not be entirely categorical without being accused of heresy by the PQ base. A Friday report that Quebec's chief electoral officer plans to begin preparing for a referendum after a PQ victory only fed speculation about the party's game plan. The agency released a statement later on Friday repudiating a spokesperson's earlier comments and saying it had "no plans or intention whatsoever" to prepare for a referendum.
Mr. Couillard's problems, meanwhile, may have only begun. Dogged by the revelation he kept money in a tax haven while he worked in Saudi Arabia two decades ago, and an ongoing police investigation into illegal party financing, the Liberal Leader was the debate's clear loser. He needs to change the subject – something he failed to do on Friday, as reporters bombarded him with questions about his Jersey bank account – or watch his hopes for a majority victory evaporate.
With nine days to go, the election will likely turn on how Quebeckers come down on the following issues.
CHARTER OF VALUES
The PQ figured it had the election in the bag with its proposed charter of Quebec values, which would ban public sector workers from wearing religious symbols. That was before media baron Pierre Karl Péladeau emerged as a PQ candidate on March 9, punching his fist in the air in the name of creating a country. The prospect of a third sovereignty referendum squeezed out the charter as the main theme of the campaign.
Still, polls show the charter idea is popular outside Montreal. And in Thursday's debate, Mr. Legault dismissed the referendum scare and set his party up as the arbiter in the charter debate.
The CAQ proposes that religious garb be banned for only public sector employees in positions of authority – judges, police, prison guards and teachers. Mr. Legualt suggested a Liberal victory would mean no charter at all, saying Mr. Couillard would allow "police officers to wear head scarves," while adding a PQ majority would mean a blanket ban that would be discriminatory. It was an appeal to conservative nationalists to elect enough MNAs from the CAQ to hold the balance of power, forcing the PQ to modify its charter proposal.
Quebeckers have become inured to hearing about kickbacks and rigged bidding on public works contracts. Disgust, outrage, cynicism and resignation all describe how they feel. Which of these emotions dominates when they mark their ballot could well determine the outcome of the vote.
The CAQ made hay of the corruption theme in the 2012, winning 27 per cent of the popular vote in an election that booted Jean Charest's Liberals from power. The province's anti-corruption squad seized documents from Liberal headquarters last year, and investigators visited Mr. Couillard at his home. Quebeckers are waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The Charbonneau commission on allegations of corruption in the construction industry, in recess for the campaign, is to resume hearings on April 8 with an emphasis on provincial party financing. The focus will be on well-connected engineering firms accused of making illegal political contributions in exchange for preferential treatment on public contracts. Explosive testimony may await Quebeckers right after they vote.
The PQ's attempt to shine the spotlight on Liberal corruption, and off its referendum plans, was upset by the revelation this week in La Presse that investigators also "visited" two top PQ officials. Still, the Liberals have more to lose if corruption remains a dominant theme for the rest of the campaign. Mr. Couillard has been unable to explain what happened to $428,000 investigators say was raised at one Liberal fundraiser.
There is a clear paradox, underscored by the polls, between Péquiste voters (who want a referendum but do not believe there will be one even if the PQ wins a majority) and Liberals and Caquistes (who do not want such a plebiscite but are convinced the PQ would precipitate one if it wins).
Much will depend on whether Mr. Legault can persuade enough anti-referendum Caquistes to return to the fold from the Liberals, where they sought refuge after Mr. Péladeau's fist pump.
Ms. Marois, meanwhile, must strike a delicate balance that reassures anti-referendum, pro-charter nationalists she would not plunge the province into a divisive referendum campaign while not demoralizing the PQ base or sparking damaging criticism from sovereigntist elders such as Jacques Parizeau.
Ms. Marois and Mr. Couillard will both appear Sunday night on the mega-popular talk show Tout le monde en parle, in interviews recorded before the debate. But that will not be their last word. Anything could happen in nine days.