Premier Pauline Marois struggled to regain control of a floundering Parti Québécois election campaign amid signs the Quebec Liberal Party is widening its lead among voters in the final weeks of the election race and could be on track to form a majority government.
The PQ Leader found herself on the defensive Tuesday as Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, now the perceived front-runner in the race, challenged her to release her family's financial records, and she refused.
Ms. Marois, eager to shift away from the topics of sovereignty and a referendum, tried to push the campaign onto the terrain of Liberal integrity. But Mr. Couillard struck back, announcing he will release his 2012 personal income tax returns as well as details on his personal assets and those of his spouse.
"Here we have a practical test on transparency and integrity," he said as called on other party leaders to do the same.
Ms. Marois declined, dismissing Mr. Couillard's gambit as little more than a diversion.
The Liberal Leader's move appeared to be aimed specifically at Ms. Marois's husband, businessman Claude Blanchet, although Mr. Couillard denied this.
Late Tuesday, the PQ confirmed party officials met in February with investigators from the province's anti-corruption squad, known as UPAC. No specific allegations of wrongdoing were revealed and no search warrants or arrests were executed.
Quebec's corruption inquiry has heard the province's three main political parties all accepted illegal donations over the years, with the Liberals taking the bulk of the cash.
But news of the "informal meeting," as the PQ described it, promised to blunt the line of attack on alleged Liberal corruption they have tried to renew.
The PQ has fumbled with early campaign issues such as sovereignty while the Liberals appear to be gaining momentum toward the April 7 vote. An opinion survey by Léger for the Journal de Montréal-Journal de Québec – the first extensive poll of the election – showed the Liberals surging ahead with 40 per cent of popular support, ahead of the PQ with 33 per cent, the Coalition Avenir Québec with 15 per cent and Québec Solidaire at 9 per cent.
The survey corroborates indications that the PQ's campaign began to stall around the time it unveiled star candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau and got entangled in debates about a referendum. The results draw a picture of the PQ unable to build strong leads in regions where the party believed it would do well.
The Quebec City area, which forms the foundation of CAQ support, is now showing signs of crumpling under the Liberal campaign. Mr. Péladeau's arrival focused attention on sovereignty after the media tycoon proclaimed he was backing the PQ to turn Quebec into a country.
"He was probably the artisan of the PQ's descent into hell," said Gilles Parent, host of a popular Quebec City afternoon radio show on FM93. "People tell me that Mr. Péladeau made the choice easy … yes or no, do you want to move toward sovereignty?" Voters don't want another referendum, Mr. Parent said. "We've been in that movie already. Quebec isn't suffering in Canada. People don't feel stifled."
Despite the Liberals' showing, Léger pollster Christian Bourque said the party's lead in key ridings is still thin and the dynamic of the campaign has changed, with Mr. Couillard under fire from all his rivals. The level of support for the PQ has dropped only marginally compared with previous polls, while Mr. Couillard's Liberals have grown at the expense of the second opposition party, François Legault's CAQ.
Over the three days the poll was conducted, the PQ was lowest at the beginning and improved somewhat in the following days. "Is 33 per cent the floor level for the PQ or not? That remains to be seen. The Jell-O hasn't set yet," Mr. Bourque said.
Still, the mood of disenchantment with the PQ and Mr. Péladeau has become palpable among some voters, even among erstwhile PQ supporters. Some express displeasure with the businessman's iron-fisted approach toward unions and labour relations.
"He put people on the street," retired Quebec civil servant Johanne Brais said while shopping in La Prairie on Montreal's South Shore. "He is a man of injustice. And his empire is too big, he's got too much power in the media. When the PQ put him forward as a candidate, I couldn't believe it." Ms. Brais said she was pro-sovereignty but was undecided about her choice on April 7.
While the proposed charter of values is viewed favorably by a majority of francophone voters, it doesn't seem to be getting traction as a campaign issue. Voters in the Trois-Rivières area, an electoral battleground, say it rarely comes up as a topic of discussion.
"I can speak for business people. For us, it's not a concern. It's not a priority," said Gaétan Boivin, president of the Trois-Rivières chamber of commerce. "I am a business person and what interests me is economic development, productivity and the creation of wealth. When you create wealth people pay more taxes and that goes toward health and education, which is good for everyone."
PQ support among crucial francophone voters was down to 40 per cent, while the Liberals were up to 30 per cent and the CAQ at 17 per cent, according to the Léger poll. Francophone support was up just enough to put the Liberals in the lead in eight out of 14 regions surveyed by Léger.
With a report from Les Perreaux