It is never a wise idea to read too much into the results of a single by-election, no matter how neatly they fit into your preferred narrative of the political lay of the land.
That is why Quebec Premier François Legault should avoid crowing too loudly about his Coalition Avenir Québec’s victory on Monday in a Montreal-area riding that the Parti Québécois had held almost uninterruptedly for four decades.
In the end, the PQ held its ground in Marie-Victorin, winning an almost identical share of the popular vote as it did in the 2018 election. The CAQ increased its share by six percentage points, obtaining 35 per cent to the PQ’s 30 per cent.
Considering the extraordinary resources the CAQ poured into winning the riding – sending most of Mr. Legault’s top cabinet ministers to campaign door to door with CAQ candidate Shirley Dorismond, an ex-vice-president of the Quebec nurses union – the party’s victory in a low-turnout by-election was underwhelming.
After all, it followed a provincial budget that included sending $500 cheques to almost every Quebecker, a goody that did not go unnoticed in Marie-Victorin, where household income hovers below the provincial average and most residents are renters.
Nor could Marie-Victorin voters have been indifferent to Mr. Legault’s mid-campaign declaration that they would have more influence in the National Assembly if they chose a candidate to sit on the government benches.
“When you have a CAQ MNA who comes from the government, it is a lot easier to transfer local files to ministerial colleagues,” Mr. Legault said in a March 17 radio interview. Maurice Duplessis, the pre-Quiet Revolution Union Nationale premier, could not have said it better.
Still, Mr. Legault seemed to take special pleasure in defeating his former party in a riding where the Yes side won more than 60 per cent of the vote in the 1995 sovereignty referendum. Across Quebec, Mr. Legault’s 10-year-old CAQ has stolen PQ voters with a Duplessis-style nationalist platform that treats the Canadian Constitution as a minor detail. He effectively runs the province as an independent country, without having to give up federal transfer payments or the loonie.
For voters, it comes down to this: Why vote for an openly separatist party, and all the potential chaos that could entail, when the CAQ already provides the next best thing to independence with none of the inconveniences that sovereignty implies?
Mr. Legault’s strategy is working, for now. The CAQ is strongly favoured to win a second term in October. None of the four opposition parties represented in the National Assembly is polling above 20 percentage points on a provincewide basis. Among francophone voters, the CAQ had a 32-percentage-point lead over its closest rivals in a March Leger Marketing poll.
The CAQ’s main opposition in the fall election could turn out to be the Quebec Conservative Party, which has surged past the PQ and Quebec Liberal Party among francophone voters in recent polls. The QCP, led by former radio host Éric Duhaime, has tapped into populist anger over pandemic restrictions and the CAQ’s heavy-handed governing style.
Its candidate in Marie-Victorin, actor Anne Casabonne, compared COVID-19 vaccines to a pile of excrement. She managed to win more than 10 per cent of the vote in a riding that typically leans centre-left. In the right-leaning Quebec City region, the fall election is shaping up as a two-way CAQ-QCP race.
The biggest loser in the by-election was by far the provincial Liberal Party, which has held power for most of Quebec’s history since Confederation but which captured less than 7 per cent of the vote in Marie-Victorin on Monday.
Leader Dominique Anglade has repositioned the QLP as a progressive alternative to the far-left Québec Solidaire, scrapping the party’s traditional centre-right focus on the economy. She has alienated the QLP’s anglophone base by waffling on Bill 96, the CAQ legislation aimed at strengthening protections for the French. Anglophone leaders denounced an amendment to the bill introduced by the QLP that would require students in English junior colleges to take three regular courses in French. Talk is rife about the creation of a new anglophone-rights party that would challenge the QLP for the English vote in October.
The days when the QLP – under premiers Robert Bourassa, Jean Charest and Philippe Couillard – stood out as an unapologetically federalist defender of all things Canadian are good and well over. No one is quite sure what it stands for now.
The result is that no party in the National Assembly stands up for Canada. That is bound to matter, sooner or later.
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