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Opinion How Marois's laser-guided focus on identity tilted the PQ toward a majority

Political scientists are not in the habit of predicting election results. We do better analyzing results and explaining outcomes, leaving the crystal-ball gazing to pollsters and pundits.

But the temptation is irresistible with the upcoming Quebec election. The last vote, in 2012, was literally "too close to call," resulting in a squeaker minority Parti Québécois government. But this time around, the signs of a PQ win – a majority, at that – couldn't be stronger.

While this may come as a shock for some Canadians, it is not a surprise for most Quebeckers. In just over a year and a half, the PQ government under Pauline Marois has managed (despite a rocky start, untested ministers and some rookie mistakes) to gain the confidence of a growing portion of the province's electorate, particularly its francophones.

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Ms. Marois was never considered the most endearing of politicians, but she has developed her leadership persona, replacing haughtiness with gravitas and honing an image of empathy in the face of the human tragedies at Lac-Mégantic and L'Isle-Verte. She now portrays a woman in command of her party and its policies, in particular on the twin issues that define political cleavages in Quebec, the economy and the question of identity.

In effect, the PQ has stolen the Quebec Liberal Party's clothes on economic issues. Having already discounted the promise of zero deficits, the PQ is instead focusing on prosperity through economic stimulus, and on getting tough with public spending. New Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard has not been able to attract the economic headliners that could bring his party more credibility, settling for a trio of earnest but unremarkable financial technocrats.

The painful truth for Mr. Couillard is that the real players aren't interested in the opposition bench in the National Assembly. Even the plum nomination for Outremont, a riding previously held by successive finance ministers, has gone to relative unknown Hélène David, whose main claim to fame is being the sister of Françoise David, leader of the left-wing sovereigntist party Québec Solidaire.

In a risky ploy, the Liberals have chosen Dr. Gaétan Barrette, former head of Quebec's medical specialists' federation and a failed candidate for the third-party Coalition Avenir Québec, to run against Fatima Houda-Pépin, the expelled QLP caucus member who took an independent stand on the values charter. If the Liberals think they can change the channel by upping the ante on health care, they are likely in for a shock as the PQ recycles its fiscal imbalance mantra in this policy area.

Meanwhile, the CAQ's anti-corruption crusade has been rendered moot by the Charbonneau Commission, making leader François Legault yesterday's man.

On the trenchant identity question, the PQ's proposed secular charter is still anathema to many, but it has captured strong support among francophone voters. The details are divisive – who should be subject to the ban on ostentatious symbols, for example, or what these constitute – but the more definitive debate is on shaping the meaning of identity. And for Quebec, this meaning is more and more distinct from the Canadian model in every way.

It's this laser focus on the definition of identity through a secular state, gender equality and shared cultural values that's locked in the PQ's appeal to voters who still see the Quebec state as guardian of a distinct status and collective future. The opposition parties' inability to provide a counterweight may be the most significant outcome of this campaign. And if the PQ wins a majority, it may also prove the most troublesome for Canada.

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Antonia Maioni is professor of political science at McGill University.

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