The themes of the campaign are crystallizing. At least two-thirds of Quebeckers do not want a referendum. The Parti Québécois has seen its early lead in the polls evaporate and is now trailing the Liberals. The collapse of the Coalition Avenir Québec’s support suggests a big chunk of the CAQ's anti-referendum voters are seeking refuge with Philippe Couillard’s Liberals.
Pauline Marois and the Parti Québécois have sought to defuse the anti-referendum backlash by insisting the PQ would not hold such a plebiscite until voters are “ready” for one. The PQ is also trying to shift the debate back to its Charter of Values, but even more so to the question of Liberal integrity. CAQ Leader François Legault says the PQ is no longer the party to beat and also stepping up his attacks on the Liberals to win back lost supporters.
Konrad Yakabuski: Can the new frontrunner, Mr. Couillard, withstand this onslaught from the PQ and CAQ for long? Or will we see more fluidity in voter intentions yet?
André Pratte: The last two weeks of the campaign will probably be very rough for Philippe Couillard. Already Monday morning, François Legault tried to associate him with the “shit” Jean Charest left. Maybe because their internal polls show that Mr. Couillard is, if not popular, at least respected, both Mr. Legault and Ms. Marois now attack the Liberals not on their present policy but on the performance of the Charest government. In every scrum and speech, Ms. Marois repeats that 18 ministers of the Charest era are running again for Mr. Couillard's team. “They voted 11 times against the launch of an inquiry on corruption in public works,” she adds. Expect the Liberal leader to be the target of all the attacks on Thursday's second and final leaders' debate. Quebeckers will have the chance to see if Philippe Couillard has the right stuff.
Antonia Maioni: The first leaders' debate last week covered a wide range of issues, including the economy, but coming out the debate, it was clear that there would be two pounding drums: Ms. Marois's insistence on the Charter of Values; and Mr. Couillard's consistent focus on the spectre of a referendum. It's interesting that the term "anti-referendum" is being employed, in referring to public opinion, since that is probably more accurate than "anti-sovereignty." At any rate, it's probably too late for Mr. Legault to stop the hemorrhaging of the CAQ vote, and depending on how far it goes, at some point this may have a positive impact for the PQ. The interesting thing to note about the PQ's support is the stability of voting intentions so far in the campaign; the movement has mainly been with the other parties. This is why the PQ's main target is mobilizing its base and its potential voters.
Daniel Turp: The ability for Mr. Couillard to withstand continued attacks from Ms. Marois and Mr. Legault will indeed be a test for the liberal leader. The attacks increased on Monday and will reach a high mark during the second and last debate of the campaign on Thursday. It will not be easy for Philippe Couillard to distance himself from his Liberal Party’s soft stand on corruption and from what Pauline Marois referred to as Jean Charest’s “sad legacy.” For him to prove that a Liberal government under his leadership will be irreproachable on issues relating to integrity, transparency and good governance is more than a challenge. Handling of these issues will be decisive. It could reinforce his lead in the polls or turn it on his head!
Konrad Yakabuski: Indeed, the attacks on Mr. Couillard and, more broadly, the Liberal brand are dominating the news in Quebec this week. Mr. Legault is attempting to put a floor under the CAQ support, which seems to be stabilizing in the mid-teens, by arguing that handing power back to the Liberals would mean more inaction on the province's pressing economic challenges. On the left, Québec Solidaire seems to be making modest gains at the expense of the PQ. But even with the wind supposedly in their sails, the Liberals still only have the support of 30 per cent of francophone voters. The electorate remains quite fragmented. What does this fragmentation say about the mood of the electorate and the inability of any party to speak to fundamental desires of voters? Has Quebec become ungovernable?
Antonia Maioni: It's no secret that Quebec voters are in a period of flux, even though there is probably more stability in voting intentions at the provincial level than the kinds of swings in results we saw in the last federal contest. That doesn't mean Quebec is ungovernable. It does mean, however, that the status quo is not an option. The CAQ was able to leverage the malaise of francophone voters toward the Liberal party in 2012 on the corruption issue and toward the PQ on economic management, but neither of those are effective targets this time around. What we see instead is the raising of the unfinished business of the body politic in Quebec – what direction for the future of the Quebec economy and what place for Quebec in Canada?
André Pratte: Quebec ungovernable? I wouldn't go that far. The vote is more fragmented than in the past, but the CAQ's difficulties show that the PQ and Liberals are still, by far, the dominant parties. The election will be decided by how Mr. Couillard succeeds in distancing himself from the Charest legacy without angering his party's rank and file. The Péquistes will use every tool in the box to make integrity the ballot question. Their problem may be that, because of what they did in their 18 months in government, notably naming political friends to high profile jobs, Quebeckers do not believe they are really better than the Liberals on that front.
Daniel Turp: Is there really fragmentation ? With Tuesday’s Léger Poll suggesting the Liberal Party has the support of 40 per cent of the electorate and the Parti Québécois is at 33 per cent, we could be witnessing a return to bipartisan politics. The seat projections suggest that together the Liberals and PQ will win 118 out the 125 seats in the National Assembly. The last decade has proved that there is some room – but only a little, and perhaps, ephemeral room – for parties to the left or right of centre, such as the CAQ and QS. Such electoral behaviour does not mean Quebec is ungovernable. But nor does it seem to lead parties to envisage governing together through coalitions. Would coalitions not lead to better government? And would not more voters be represented in government?
Konrad Yakabuski: So we've gone from an election that was supposed to be about the Charter of Values, to one that was about a referendum, and now to one that is back to the 2012 theme of corruption and whether or not the Charest Liberals did enough to stamp it out? This suggests a lot of fluidity. Despite his own poll showing the Liberals with a seven point lead, Jean-Marc Leger said Tuesday not to believe anyone who thinks they know who will win on April 7. So, are there any other themes that could emerge to shake up the race?
André Pratte: I agree with Jean-Marc Léger that the results of this election are impossible to predict, no matter what the polls say. The era of strong party loyalties is behind us. People can change their mind at the last minute, as we have seen in many jurisdictions in the recent past. Thursday night's televised debate will be crucial. Mr. Couillard will be under attack for the full two hours. He has to look like the future Premier most people want him to be. It will be difficult to avoid mistakes that could haunt him for the rest of the campaign. At the same time, his opponents will rapidly run out of ammunition. If the wind is to change direction, it needs to happen in the next couple of days.
Antonia Maioni: Well, I think for once all of us will agree that, at least at this point, anything can happen on election day. I'm not so sure that party loyalties are all that fluid, since the core of PQ and Liberal support is still very much in evidence. But certainly many voters have not yet made up their minds. This is why, as André suggests, the next few days of the campaign are crucial, especially the debate on Thursday. Expect Ms. Marois and Mr. Legault to leave no holds barred as they fight for their political lives. But Mr. Couillard has a lot to lose as the frontrunner, and his opponents will relentlessly try to get under his skin. Let's see whether he can keep his cool.
Daniel Turp: Other themes ? The environment, culture, education? Health-care and the economy? These themes will be dealt with during Thursday’s debate, but I doubt that they can gain any prominence during the last days of the campaign. I am under the impression that Philippe Couillard will continue to evoke the spectre of another referendum on separation and suggest that the Parti Québécois’s only goal is to destroy Canada. The Parti Québécois will put emphasis on integrity and attempt to corner Philippe Couillard on issues relating to corruption. The Liberal leader’s lack of commitment on this problem will be emphasized not only by Pauline Marois, but also by the leaders of the CAQ and QS. To hold or not to hold a referendum. To fight or not to fight corruption. Those questions will determine the winner on April 7.
Konrad Yakabuski: Well, it looks like we’re in for a more aggressive debate than last week’s, if not a potentially rollercoaster end to the campaign. We’ll pick up our discussion next week.