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The Globe and Mail

Quebeckers go to polls after divisive campaign

Quebec Liberal Party Leader Philippe Couillard waves as he leaves on a province wide tour by plane, Sunday, April 6, 2014 in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

After a bitter campaign that was turned on its head by the question of sovereignty, Quebeckers will be voting Monday for the second time in 18 months to decide which party should lead the province.

Polls suggest that the Parti Québécois and its Leader Pauline Marois may pay a heavy price for their inability to persuade voters that a re-elected PQ government would not hold a referendum on sovereignty. The party also didn't appear to get any traction on its popular but controversial secular charter, a proposal that divided Quebeckers, including sovereigntists.

The Liberals under Philippe Couillard could be returning to power not long after former leader Jean Charest lost to the PQ in 2012, a prospect that appeared extremely unlikely at the outset of the campaign. The Liberals could achieve this feat on Monday night without voters being fully informed of allegations of illegal party fundraising pending against the party. That's because the Charbonneau Commission probing corruption in the province has suspended public hearings until after the vote. The shock waves of the much-anticipated revelations at the commission dealing with provincial parties have yet to be felt.

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During the campaign, however, nothing in the various party strategies could have foreseen the level of voter volatility. As Ms. Marois and Mr. Couillard questioned each other's integrity through harsh personal attacks, the Coalition Avenir Québec began to appeal to voters looking for change. The suspense over the outcome of Monday's election hinges on how well François Legault's CAQ performs.

The CAQ has risen sharply in the polls since Mr. Legault's well-received performance in the second debate among the leaders almost two weeks ago.

No doubt the pivotal moment of the campaign came during Ms. Marois's introduction of star candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau, former CEO of Quebecor. Mr. Péladeau pumped his fist in the air and called for a sovereign country when he was presented as the PQ candidate for St-Jérôme.

The Liberals couldn't believe their good fortune. The issues of sovereignty and especially the potential of another referendum, which few voters wanted, were handed to Mr. Couillard on a silver platter. The Liberals ran with them and never looked back.

"A vote for the PQ is a vote for a referendum" became the mantra of Mr. Couillard, who now envisages becoming premier. He was already looking forward to how he would manage Quebec's place in the Canadian federation as he ended his campaign with a whirlwind tour that spanned the province by aircraft and bus.

During the final days, Mr. Couillard spoke at some length about the alliances he would build with premiers to work on issues with Ottawa, but had a more chilly reaction to the idea of working with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"I will be there with the ambition to work with him and whoever wins the next [federal] election in 2015. I'm not there to please the federal Prime Minister. My role is to defend and promote Quebec in the federation," he said, speaking with the confidence of his front-runner status.

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Mr. Couillard promised to work with provincial premiers to negotiate two key issues with the Conservative federal government: Equalization and the health-care accord that quietly expired last week after Ottawa simply extended the funding formula.

"There's a convergence in 2014 where the health accord must be renegotiated, and equalization," he said.

Placed on the defensive early in the campaign, Ms. Marois had made no plans to debate sovereignty let alone the timing of another referendum.

"I should not have answered so many questions about sovereignty, since what is at stake here is the election of a government," Ms. Marois said with regret on Saturday, acknowledging that it was the worst decision of her campaign.

But the PQ Leader hasn't given up on forming another minority government, which for party strategists probably remains the best-case scenario given the dramatic drop in support among francophone voters, according to public opinion polls.

"It is true that it is a tight race. But it isn't over. Our solid organization can make a difference and will get the vote out," Ms. Marois said repeatedly to encourage party workers during the last events of the campaign.

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The Coalition Avenir Québec hopes it has muddied the political waters just enough to block the election of a majority government. Mr. Legault was now calling for a "revolution of courage," urging voters to turn their backs on the old parties.

"The revolution of courage will begin with the step you take on Monday. … I invite you to be bold. I invite you to get rid of your fears. I invite you to get rid of the old parties," Mr. Legault said in winding down his campaign over the weekend.

The campaign also witnessed a hemorrhaging of PQ support in some Montreal ridings in favour of the pro-sovereignty left leaning Québec Solidaire. The recruitment of a powerful right-wing candidate such as Mr. Péladeau and the anger in some circles over a secular charter banning overt religious symbols that would likely target Muslim women has alienated the more progressive elements of the sovereignty movement.

Rarely have so many elements converged to defy projections and which could produce results on election day few could have predicted at the outset of the campaign.

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