The Quebec Liberals have increased their lead over the Parti Québécois in voting intentions ahead of the first of two leaders' debates in the province, according to a new Ipsos Reid poll.
The April 7 election has quickly turned into a battle over Quebec's constitutional future, with Philippe Couillard's Liberals winning over supporters with their anti-referendum stand. With the support of 37 per cent of respondents, the Liberals have taken the lead over the faltering PQ, which stands at 32 per cent, according to the poll.
The right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec is in third place at 16 per cent in popular support, with the left-wing Québec Solidaire in fourth place at 10 per cent.
Mr. Couillard will face off Thursday evening against PQ Leader Pauline Marois, CAQ Leader François Legault and QS Leader Françoise David in a debate broadcast on Radio-Canada and Télé-Québec. A second debate is scheduled one week later on the private TVA network.
The Ipsos Reid poll, based on a sample of 810 Quebeckers from the firm's online panel, is the third straight survey to suggest that the Liberals have gained ground on the PQ since the start of the campaign. Ms. Marois called the election this month in a bid to obtain a majority government.
"The tide seems to have turned away from Pauline Marois and the PQ, at least for the time being, as just 33 per cent of Quebeckers believe that 'Quebec is headed in the right track,' compared to 67 per cent who think that it is 'going down the wrong direction,' " the firm said in its polling analysis.
The PQ has responded to the series of negative polls by sharpening its attacks against Mr. Couillard. On Wednesday, the party also started to increase its focus on its proposed charter of secular values, which would prevent provincial government employees from wearing overt religious symbols at work.
The poll suggests that a key moment in the campaign occurred when Ms. Marois announced that media magnate Pierre Karl Péladeau was running for the PQ in St-Jérôme, north of Montreal. Mr. Péladeau's vow to "make Quebec a country" brought the issue of sovereignty to the forefront of the campaign – and gave wind to the Liberal Party's position against a third referendum on sovereignty.
"It's a different game now leading into the leaders' debate with almost three quarters (72 per cent) of Quebeckers believing that a vote for the Parti Québécois is a vote for a referendum," Ipsos Reid said.
Support for sovereignty remains low in Quebec, according to the poll.
"Just two in 10 (18 per cent) Quebeckers say that if the PQ should form the next government, they should hold a referendum on sovereignty during its next mandate … Even among current PQ supporters, only 40 per cent say the PQ should hold a referendum," Ipsos Reid said.
The poll found that Mr. Péladeau's entrance in the Quebec election – while sparking a "frenzy" – will not necessarily improve the PQ's results. More respondents (54 per cent) disagreed that Mr. Péladeau's candidacy was a "good thing for Quebec" than those (46 per cent) who agreed with the statement.
Still, the PQ continues to lead among the province's francophone electorate, which has an overwhelming sway in a majority of ridings outside of Montreal Island. Among French speakers, the PQ comes out in first place with the support of 38 per cent of respondents, with the Liberals in second place at 29 per cent.
Mr. Couillard polled ahead of Ms. Marois in leadership qualities, including handling the economy, a key issue for Quebeckers according to recent polls in the province.
The firm said that its online poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 per cent.