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Quebec’s next election winner may surprise

Francois Legault, poses in his Montreal home on July 11, 2011.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

With an election call rumoured to be no more than weeks away, François Legault and his Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) party are trailing in the polls as the Liberals and Parti Québécois vie for the advantage. But not only does Mr. Legault have a lot of ground to make up in the voting intentions of Quebeckers. As a rookie party leader, history is not on his side.

The record of leaders taking a major party into a general election for their first time is a losing one in Quebec. Only 30 per cent of rookie leaders since Confederation have managed to win a provincial election in Quebec, and just over 60 per cent of them presided over a loss in support for their party. On average, parties in an election under a rookie leader in Quebec have lost two points from the previous vote.

Mr. Legault is no political neophyte, having been a PQ cabinet minister in the past. And in addition to leading a party into an election for the first time, Mr. Legault's party itself is new. However, the CAQ swallowed up the Action Démocratique du Québec earlier this year and absorbed its MNAs and a portion of its party apparatus, making it little more than the ADQ 2.0 for many Quebeckers.

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But Mr. Legault has the benefit of being more personally popular than either Premier Jean Charest or Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti Québécois. And while a loss in a likely fall election might set his party back until the next vote, he would be following in the footsteps of some notable other figures in Quebec's political history. Maurice Duplessis, Jacques Parizeau, and Jean Charest were all defeated in their first kick of the can as leader (the Liberals took more of the vote in 1998 under Mr. Charest, but won fewer seats than the PQ). Other leaders, however, have been able to pull off the rookie victory. They include Jean Lesage in 1960 and Robert Bourassa in 1970.

Pauline Marois is another party leader who was defeated the first time out, having fallen short of Mr. Charest in the last provincial election. But history suggests Ms. Marois has an advantage as a sophomore, as 74 per cent of leaders in their second election as party chief have been elected Premier. She also has a very good shot of improving upon the PQ's performance in 2008, as 63 per cent of sophomore leaders of major parties have done so, to the tune of 3.6 points on average.

If Ms. Marois does win, she will follow the path of former and current premiers Duplessis, Parizeau, Charest, and Joseph-Adélard Godbout, party leaders who were elected premiers after losing in their first attempt.

While the history looks good for Ms. Marois and less so for Mr. Legault, things are murkier for Jean Charest.

The upcoming election will mark Mr. Charest's fifth as leader of the Quebec Liberals (sixth as a leader of any party, as he led the federal Progressive Conservatives into the 1997 election). This puts him in rare company, as only three other men have led major Quebec parties into five or more elections: Mr. Bourassa, Mr. Duplessis, and Mario Dumont. While both Mr. Bourassa and Mr. Duplessis won in their fifth attempts, Mr. Dumont was defeated in 2008 after becoming the leader of the opposition in 2007.

As a Premier asking for a fourth electoral mandate, Jean Charest is also a rarity. Only Mr. Duplessis, Lomer Gouin, and Louis-Alexandre Taschereau have done so, and all were re-elected. By these slight measures,Mr. Charest would appear to have history on his side, as does Ms. Marois. Coincidentally, the Liberals and Parti Québécois are neck-and-neck in the polls.

If these average increases and decreases in support occurred in the next election (the six cases that apply to Mr. Charest resulted in an average drop of 2.1 points), the situation would not change for the two parties. The Liberals would take 40 per cent and the Parti Québécois increased to some 39 per cent, with the CAQ in third at 14 per cent. In such a scenario, either the Liberals or the PQ could end up winning enough seats to form government.

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But if more recent history is any indication, Quebeckers are in an unpredictable mood. After 20 years of dominance, the Bloc Québécois was replaced by the NDP in last year's federal election, and the polls did suggest for a time that they were ready to hand power over to Mr. Legault's untested party. Adding the CAQ's relative novelty to the turmoil of the student protests, the emergence of Québec Solidaire as a legitimate fourth party option, and the volatility in voting intentions in the province, there are many reasons why the next election in Quebec could buck the historical trends.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at

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