As a federal election looms, Quebec might be the quietest place in Canada –the province will yield no surprises, and the battles will be relatively tame. While Ontario and British Columbia are the ones to watch, chances are that the final results in Quebec will be close to those of the last election.
As usual, the Bloc Québécois will monopolize the bulk of the votes, especially those in the homogeneous francophone hinterland. The electoral map that gives rural areas an undue advantage over cities – where most Canadians live – is one of the many factors favouring the Bloc.
As usual, the Liberals will hold to their ridings in the Montreal area. Even though they're ahead of the Conservatives in most polls, the numbers are deceptive since Liberal support is heavily concentrated in a dozen ridings with a large anglophone and immigrant population. The Liberals are in such disarray in Quebec that their "star candidates" are rarely seen or heard.
Even Martin Cauchon, the former justice minister who will try to regain his Outremont riding from NDP Thomas Mulcair, seems to have vanished from the public scene, although he's a leadership hopeful. The Liberals might again face the humiliation of losing Outremont, a constituency that, until 2007, was one of their more solid strongholds in the country.
As for the Conservatives, recent polls show they're still strong in the Quebec City area. The Harper government's refusal to finance a hockey arena doesn't seem to have hurt the Conservatives in the provincial capital.
Theoretically, the only surprise element that could weigh on the federal campaign is Premier Jean Charest's stand. In the 2008 election campaign, his sharp criticism of Stephen Harper's policies hurt the Conservatives (although it didn't help the Liberals). This time around, however, Mr. Charest probably will be a minor player, if only because he's extremely unpopular.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, meanwhile, hasn't been able to grip the attention of Quebec voters. He's neither liked nor disliked – he's just not in the picture. His name is hardly mentioned in informal conversations about politics. Mr. Harper is much better known, of course, and his five years in office have generated a great deal of anger and resentment in many circles; but this has not benefited the Liberals. The Bloc is the only party that can capitalize on anti-Harper feelings.
The Liberals believe they can make gains, in Quebec as elsewhere, if they attack the government over its ethics, as the Conservatives successfully did in 2003 against the Martin Liberals in the wake of the sponsorship scandal. House Speaker Peter Milliken's ruling that the government withheld information from a parliamentary committee and that International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda may have misled the House provides ideal fodder for the Liberals, although the Conservatives can easily argue that the Liberals were as secretive, if not more, when they had a majority government and thus full control of the parliamentary committees. And the issues raised by Mr. Milliken are not the kind that will stir the average voter's emotions.
Mr. Harper is an unloved politician, and so is Mr. Ignatieff. The difference is, when people are asked who would make the best prime minister, Mr. Harper wins every time. It's the leadership issue – as well as the fact that Canada's economy, on the whole, is relatively healthy – that tilts the balance in favour of the Conservatives.