An election campaign that voters didn't want has chastised the Parti Québecois, and it now has Philippe Couillard anticipating victory. But as results come in Monday night, the details will shape Quebec's politics for years to come.
The big question at the outset – whether Pauline Marois's PQ would win a majority and the opportunity to hold a sovereignty referendum – appears, from the polls, likely to be answered with a firm No. But several other key questions are still to be settled.
Mr. Couillard's Liberals, quivering at the prospect of a once-unexpected win, will still shiver at the thought it will be a minority government – an unstable one, with fickle support, constantly fearing its defeat could be triggered by an ongoing corruption inquiry. For the PQ, a drubbing will shake the core of a party forced to rethink how it can sell sovereignty to a referendum-averse electorate. And the third-party CAQ could emerge as a potential force for reshaping Quebec politics, or be shown up as a fad.
All that's still up in the air. Though a Léger Marketing poll released Saturday found the Liberals are ahead, they trail the PQ among francophones who decide most ridings. And François Legault's CAQ is enjoying a late surge, making it all more unpredictable.
A month ago, the thought of Mr. Couillard ending the campaign appealing for a majority government would have sparked chuckles – but it's not a laughing matter for Liberals now. If they fall short, their government could be unstable and shortlived.
A big chunk of Liberal support is tactical; almost a quarter, according to Ipsos-Reid pollster Luc Durand, will vote Liberal just to stop the PQ.
Many Quebeckers are still tired of the Liberals, and many still associate the party with rubbery ethics. Some Liberals worry the Charbonneau Commission into corruption might unearth past Liberal transgressions – and if Mr. Couillard only has a minority, that could trigger defeat, sending weakened Liberals into a new election, possibly against a new PQ leader.
For the PQ, too, the score matters. Ms. Marois isn't likely to survive as leader unless voters unexpectedly return her to power. But the results will determine if the party faces a leadership race, or an existential debate.
This campaign turned on voters recoiling at the idea of a referendum, sparked by PQ star candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau, the former Quebecor CEO whose fist-pumping call for a country started voters thinking that a referendum campaign could be expected soon. If the results are close Monday night, then PQ leadership contenders like Bernard Drainville and Jean-François Lisée, and possibly Mr. Péladeau, will be encouraged to treat defeat as the result of tactical campaign mistakes. After all, running for the PQ leadership usually requires persuading party activists you will advance the sovereignty cause.
But a crushing loss would force a deeper debate: What does a sovereigntist party do when voters are repulsed by a referendum? Will some propose a temporary truce, definitively ruling out a referendum for four or eight years? PQ hardliners would reject it, but some might fear that if they don't choose that option, voters will – and move to other parties, like the CAQ. That's one reason the CAQ's showing is important. It challenges the rigid federalist-sovereigntist dynamic. It's too conservative for many Quebeckers, but Mr. Legault is the leader who gave them the kind of debate they wanted, focused on the economy and jobs, and avoiding the sovereignty and referendum talk they don't want right now. Monday's election will decide if the CAQ remains relevant. It once seemed destined to shrink to a rump. The defeat of Mr. Legault in a tight race in his riding could leave it leaderless. But a recent surge opens the possibility of a strong showing that would anchor its claim to be a force for reshaping Quebec politics. After 33 days, it has proved to be the kind of campaign Quebeckers didn't want. They told pollsters their priorities were the economy, jobs and health care, but they heard about sovereignty, referendums, religious symbols and mudslinging. Many will vote to reject what they don't like. In the process, they just might reshape the province's politics for years.
Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer in Ottawa.