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In Quebec’s election, last goal wins Add to ...

Did the Liberals peak too soon? Will Quebec have another minority government? And if so, will it be led by the PQ or the Liberals?

Less than a week before the election, these questions, incredibly, are still in the air. If this was the dirtiest campaign in the province’s contemporary history, it will also have been, until the very end, the most unpredictable.

A month ago, the Parti Québécois was leading in the polls and heading for a majority. Then, a week into the campaign, things changed dramatically with media tycoon Pierre Karl Péladeau’s passionate plea for the sovereigntist cause – emphasized with his raised fist. The scene, as well as the cries of joy of the diehards who greeted him as a messiah who would lead them toward the promised land, suddenly reminded the electorate that a PQ victory meant a referendum on sovereignty.

The winds shifted, and three successive polls showed that Philippe Couillard’s Liberals had moved into the lead, in majority territory. The first televised debate, on March 20, was to Mr. Couillard’s advantage – he looked cool and in command, while the PQ’s Pauline Marois, nervous and agitated, was clearly on the defensive.

But then the winds shifted again. With two weeks left before the vote, the PQ, in panic mode, went after Mr. Couillard with sirens wailing. Ms. Marois accused him of condoning the oppressive politics of Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a neurosurgeon before entering politics.

A reporter from Radio-Canada rummaged through the court documents of Mr. Couillard’s 2000 divorce and discovered that he had deposited the money he made in Saudi Arabia in a chartered Canadian bank located in the Isle of Jersey, a tax haven. It was perfectly legal, experts confirmed, but the information was damaging.

François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Quebec, the third party that was losing votes to the Liberals, resorted to “guilt by association” by focusing on Mr. Couillard’s past relationship with Arthur Porter, the former McGill University Health Centre CEO who faces fraud charges.

At the second televised debate, last week, Mr. Couillard was targeted by both Ms. Marois and Mr. Legault, and clearly looked destabilized. While answering a question about bilingualism, he said that even a worker on the assembly line should speak English, in order to answer an American customer’s queries. This inept comment on an extremely sensitive issue added to Mr. Couillard’s constant dithering about the constitutional issue, hurting him among francophones. It reinforced the perception that he doesn’t care about Quebec’s distinct culture.

Meanwhile, the PQ did all it could to kill the prospect of a referendum, with Ms. Marois vowing that she won’t call one unless Quebeckers want it. To change the subject, the PQ aggressively focused on its secularism charter, whose main provision is to forbid religious symbols in the public sector – an identity issue that plays well among older French-Canadians wary of the “dangers” of immigration.

On Monday, Mr. Legault released a CROP poll commissioned by the CAQ that showed that its support among francophones had grown by nine percentage points in a week – a huge gain that might result in a minority government, since the CAQ takes votes from both major parties. On the other hand, it’s a well-known fact that support for the provincial Liberals is usually underestimated in pre-election polls.

Who will win? Stay tuned.

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