A clear majority of Quebeckers feel the Parti Québécois will not have a legitimate mandate to launch a third referendum on sovereignty if it wins the April 7 election, a new Léger poll has found.
National unity dominated the election campaign all week, fuelled by the entry of media magnate Pierre Karl Péladeau into the race as a star PQ candidate whose priority is "to make Quebec a country." However, PQ Leader Pauline Marois strove to rein in talk of sovereignty in recent days in an attempt to prevent the topic from overshadowing the rest of her party's message.
The poll suggests a majority of Quebeckers simply do not want to focus on the divisive issue, with 69 per cent of respondents saying they want less talk of sovereignty during the campaign. A clear majority wanted a greater focus on public finances (77 per cent), health (84 per cent) and jobs (85 per cent). Asked whether a PQ government would have "the mandate to hold a referendum on sovereignty," 54 per cent said "no," and 29 per cent said "yes."
"Quebeckers know that there is a difference between an election campaign and a referendum," said Jean-Marc Léger, president of Léger. "The PQ might not see a difference, but the people do."
According to the poll conducted for The Globe and Mail and Le Devoir, the race is tightening, especially among the francophone voters who are predominant in a majority of ridings.
Over all, with the support of 37 per cent of respondents, the PQ is tied for voting intentions with the Quebec Liberals. The third-place Coalition Avenir Québec has only 14 per cent, as former supporters move mainly to the Liberals. The left-wing Quebec Solidaire is at 9 per cent.
Among francophones, the poll found the PQ enjoys a 17-point lead over the Liberals, down from 22 points six weeks ago. The PQ is at 44 per cent among the francophone electorate, or one point shy of majority territory, according to the firm's polling model.
"It's a two-way race in which anything can still happen," Mr. Léger said.
The poll confirmed Mr. Péladeau is a polarizing figure in his home province, with 42 per cent of respondents seeing him in a positive light, compared with 40 per cent who have a negative opinion of the former Quebecor chief executive. However, Mr. Péladeau has the approval of 90 per cent of PQ voters, suggesting he is helping his party solidify its support. According to Mr. Léger, the PQ still stands to benefit from a boost after recruiting Mr. Péladeau, who "is more popular than his party."
At this point, the PQ's support is the most stable among major parties, with 79 per cent of its supporters stating they have made a final choice. Among the supporters of Philippe Couillard's Liberals, 72 per cent said their choice is final. The number is much lower for François Legault's CAQ, only 53 per cent.
CAQ voters said their most likely second choice is the Liberal Party (43 per cent), followed by the PQ (17 per cent).
Mr. Léger said 15 per cent of respondents indicated the leaders' debates will influence their choice, meaning the two televised showdowns will have a "major" impact.
The pollster said his results suggest Mr. Couillard needs to find a way to "connect with francophone voters" during the last three weeks of the campaign. However, Mr. Léger cautioned that the Quebec Liberal Party's star recruit in the campaign – medical doctor Gaétan Barrette – is deeply unpopular, with only 16 per cent having a favourable opinion of him, compared with 48 per cent who hold a negative view.
"People here don't like turncoats," Mr. Léger said in reference to the fact that Dr. Barrette ran for the CAQ in 2012.
The polls found that, over all, respondents find that the PQ has been running the best campaign and attracting the best candidates. However, Mr. Léger said, the emphasis on sovereignty suggests it has been "running on the wrong issue."
The online poll was conducted between March 11 and 13. Léger estimates that the 1,205 respondents provide a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 per cent.