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crunching numbers

By most accounts -- including that of a sitting Liberal cabinet minister -- the next election campaign in Quebec will be starting on Wednesday, with voters heading to the polls on Sept. 4. It looks like it will be a close race between the Liberals and the Parti Québécois. Here are a breakdown of ridings to keep an eye on as the campaign unfolds.

Tight races

With the Liberals and PQ neck-and-neck in the polls, the election result could come down to a handful of votes in a few close contests between the two parties. Two new Montreal-area ridings, Montarville and Sainte-Rose, and Saint-François in the Eastern Townships could be among the tightest races. The Liberals enter the campaign as the incumbents in all three ridings based on the voting results in 2008 within these new boundaries, but they could be decided by a few percentage points on election night.

Bonaventure, on the Gaspé Peninsula, could also be an interesting race. The Liberals won the riding by a safe margin in the Dec. 2011 by-election, but the Parti Québécois improved their vote share at a time when the party was languishing in the polls. Now that the PQ is challenging for government, the riding could swing.

Three other ridings could be close due to the retirement of veteran MNAs. Two Liberals, Norman MacMillan and Yvon Vallières, and one PQ MNA, Claude Pinard, have opted not to run for re-election in their ridings of Papineau, Richmond, and Saint-Maurice. This puts them up for grabs and all three could switch allegiances. Richmond is particularly vulnerable, as the shifting riding boundaries have urged Étienne-Alexis Boucher, PQ MNA for the old riding of Johnson, to take a run at Mr. Vallières' seat.

But the Liberals will have to fight off the Coalition Avenir Québec as well as the PQ if they are to remain in power. The CAQ is trailing in the polls by a wide margin but has enough support to play the spoiler in many ridings across Quebec. Two ridings in particular should be hotly contested by the Liberals and the CAQ. In Beauce-Sud, held by Robert Dutil, the ADQ came to within two points of the Liberals in 2008. With better numbers, the CAQ should be able to close the gap in the riding. And in La Peltrie, held by current CAQ MNA Éric Caire, the Liberals have nominated Jean-François Gosselin, a former ADQ MNA for a nearby Quebec City riding. The margin between the ADQ and the Liberals in 2008 was three points – it is likely to be another close result in 2012.

Three-way races

In addition to these battles between the Liberals and the PQ and the Liberals and the CAQ, at least three ridings are setting up to be closely split between three and even four parties.

Groulx, north of Montreal, could be one of the tightest three-way races in the province. The former PQ MNA for the riding, René Gauvreau, is not running again and instead Raymond Archambault, former journalist with Radio-Canada, will be carrying the PQ banner. He will face stiff competition from both the Liberals and the CAQ. Johnson, in the Eastern Townships, is also on track to be a three-way race, as it was in 2008.

The most interesting riding may be Nicolet-Bécancour, however. Located in central Quebec, the riding is home to Jean-Martin Aussant, leader of Option Nationale and former MNA for the Parti Québécois. He is likely to take a large portion of his old PQ support with him and also receive a boost from his pact with Québec Solidaire. In exchange for not running an ON candidate in Gouin, where the co-leader of Québec Solidaire, Françoise David, will be seeking election, the left-wing party will not run a candidate against Mr. Aussant. This means there is more of a sovereigntist vote to split between Mr. Aussant and the PQ, making the riding one that could be won by either party, as well as the Liberals and CAQ, who had 34 per cent and 27 per cent of the vote, respectively, in the territory now occupied by Nicolet-Bécancour in 2008.

Ridings of note

Mr. Aussant will not be the only party leader facing a tough challenge, as the elections of François Legault, Jean Charest, and Ms. David are far from certain. Québec Solidaire finished nine points back of the PQ in Gouin in 2008, and both parties will put a great deal of effort into winning it this time. The vote in Sherbrooke, Mr. Charest's riding, is always close and stands to be again, as long-time Bloc Québécois MP Serge Cardin will be running for the PQ. Mr. Legault's chosen riding, L'Assomption, was not a particularly good one for the ADQ in the last election and the Parti Québécois has a good shot of retaining it.

The PQ will also try to win back the ridings they lost when three of their caucus members crossed the floor to sit with Mr. Legault's party. Floor-crossers have a tendency to take a lot of their vote with them, and Daniel Ratthé (Blainville), Benoit Charrette (Deux-Montagnes), and François Rebello (Sanguinet) all hope that will be the case this time around. The PQ has nominated Bernard Généreux, president of the Quebec Federation of Municipalities, in Blainville, and the race could be close in all three ridings. They are all located in parts of the province where the ADQ met with great success in 2007.

Some interesting names also make a few ridings worth a look: Léo Bureau-Blouin, one of the three main leaders of the student protests in the province, will be taking a run at Laval-des-Rapides for the PQ. The riding is currently held by Alain Paquet of the Liberals. And two former Conservative MPs, Daniel Petit and Luc Harvey, will be running under the banner of the Conservative Party of Quebec in Charlesbourg and Lévis, respectively. It is unlikely that they will capture a large share of the vote, but they do have the potential to hurt the re-election chances of the incumbent Liberals in the riding.

With neither the Liberals nor the Parti Québécois seemingly able to garner the support of more than one-in-three Quebecers, and with the Coalition Avenir Québec gobbling up as much as one quarter of the francophone vote, there should be many close races throughout the province. Unless one of the three main leaders can manage to pull away from the pack, all parties will have to work to squeeze every last vote out of these ridings, as many of them could go down to the wire.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at