After just 18 months at the head of a minority government, Québec Premier Pauline Marois went down to a stunning defeat in Québec’s April 7 elections. The governing Parti Québécois (PQ), hoping to form a majority government and leading in the polls in early March, dropped from 54 seats to 30, and saw its popular vote numbers decrease from 32 percent to 25 percent. Premier Marois also lost her seat and immediately resigned on election night. The Québec Liberal party will now form a majority government, and its mandate extends until October 2018.
While subscribing to the adage that “campaigns matter,” I must acknowledge that this is the most spectacular turnaround in Québec election campaign history. This marks the fifth consecutive election that the pro- independence PQ receives less than 35 percent of the popular vote, and it has suffered four defeats in the last five contests. With a leadership race now in the offing, the often fractious PQ is in for some trying times.
The victorious Québec Liberals, with Premier-elect Philippe Couillard, have a steady majority of 70 seats in a 125-seat Parliament (known as the National Assembly). Incoming Premier Couillard won a leadership race just 13 months ago, and in a short time, was able to recruit an impressive array of new candidates. His campaign was focused around three themes: a prosperous economy, greater access to healthcare and education.
The fact that the PQ was evasive and ambiguous about holding a referendum on Québec independence, however, gave Couillard a wedge issue and a ballot box question—do you want a referendum on separatism: yes or no? Given that polls indicated that a large majority of voters were opposed to such a referendum, the PQ campaign strategy was immediately sent off course.
The third party, the Coalition Avenir Québec (Coalition for Québec’s Future—CAQ) finished with 23 percent of the popular vote and 22 seats (a gain of three seats from the 2012 election). Leader François Legault had a strong finish, and on election night, he clearly staked his ground as the leading opposition politician while the PQ was reeling from the worst setback in its history. Expect Legault to try to be the de facto official opposition leader in the National Assembly.
How did this result occur? Both the Liberals and the CAQ ran more effective campaigns, and their leaders were more on message on the campaign trail. Premier Marois, on other hand, seemed uncertain, and was unable to present a cogent argument for the election call. The campaign was badly run and continually off-message.
Premier Marois also recruited a prominent business leader and media tycoon, Pierre Karl Péladeau, as a star candidate to give her party and the pro- independence cause stronger economic credentials. At the moment of his announcement as candidate, many observers in the media and in the governing PQ thought it would be a game changer.
It was, for sure—but in favor of the main opponent, the federalist Liberals.
Péladeau soon became a flawed candidate. He asserted that he was running primarily to make Québec an independent country, separate from Canada. In doing so, he polarized the electorate and transformed the election contest into a referendum campaign, much to the satisfaction of the Liberals. The latter quickly jumped into the lead and never looked back.
In the waning days of the campaign, the PQ tried to polarize the electorate around identity issues such as language, in an attempt to play to Québec nationalists. In the run-up to the election call, the PQ had banked heavily on its proposed charter of secular values, which banned religious attire or signs for public employees—with the specter of dismissal in the event of noncompliance. Despite significant support in some segments of the electorate, it failed to generate any momentum with voters as the campaign ended. The PQ version of the charter is now a thing of the past.
The Québec political scene is about to undergo some significant change. The cause of Québec independence no longer enjoys the intergenerational support it had in its early days. This will surely transform Québec and Canadian politics in the years ahead. And this will surely be the most significant aftermath of the 2014 election campaign.