Don’t rock the vote

Why Charest is better off with a low turnout at the polls

Don't rock the vote

Jean Charest is a popular man in Quebec these days. With a double-digit lead in the polls, the Quebec premier is widely expected to coast to a third mandate next month. If he does, he’ll be the first to do so since Maurice Duplessis won four consecutive elections under the Union Nationale banner between 1944 and 1960. But that’s not to say the Liberal leader is enjoying a groundswell of popular support. Though Quebecers appear resigned to another Charest victory on Dec. 8, the truth is, they’d rather not vote at all.

Just prior to the start of the campaign, seven out of 10 Quebecers polled by CROP said they hoped the premier wouldn’t send them back to the voting booth a mere 20 months after his government was reduced to a minority. But even frustration over an early call isn’t enough to get voters fired up. In fact, according to a Léger Marketing poll this week, over half of the electorate isn’t even following the race, and 37 per cent say they feel less motivated to cast a ballot in this election than they were in the last one. Given the widespread disinterest, a repeat of the dismal turnout for the past few provincial and federal elections seems likely. And if history is any guide, Charest has little reason to want it any other way.

Since 1976, the Liberals have never won an election in which the voter participation rate was above 76 per cent. (The past two Liberal governments were elected with a turnout of 70 and 71 per cent of the population, respectively.) PQ majorities, on the other hand, have come as a result of turnouts that often crossed the 80 per cent threshold, with only Lucien Bouchard’s 1998 victory coming with less than four-fifths of eligible voters casting a ballot. “If the turnout is low, that means older people went to vote and young people didn’t,” says Jean-Marc Léger of Léger Marketing, noting the Liberals’ base tends to be older than that of their rivals.

It might be tempting to view the 2007 vote as an exception to the trend. With just over 70 percent of eligible voters doing the deed, participation in 2007 was among the lowest in recent Quebec history. The Liberals ended up losing 28 seats—and their majority in the National Assembly—largely to a surging ADQ. But things could have been much worse for Charest. Despite a boost in popular support, Mario Dumont and the ADQ were never considered a viable alternative to the Liberals; at no point in the campaign did the upstart party take a lead in the polls. With disenchanted PQ voters largely staying home on election day, Charest’s relatively weak opponents went on to split the nationalist vote almost evenly, allowing the Liberal leader to eke out a second mandate with the lowest share of the popular vote (33.1%) in Quebec history. (Even in defeat, the Liberal party had never garnered such a minuscule share of the vote in their 140-year history.)

The Liberals entered this race on much more solid ground. After a scandal-plagued first term—Liberal support plummeted to 21 per cent in April 2005—the Charest government changed course and abandoned their controversial effort to “re-engineer the state” during their second turn. As a result, there is “no protest or passion” to boot them out of office this time around, says Antonia Maioni, the director of McGill’s Institute for the Study of Canada. Furthermore, the PQ’s younger base has proven fickle in the past, a phenomenon André Boisclair knows all too well. The former PQ leader took over the party thanks largely to his PQ membership drive in CEGEPs and universities. But many of those same supporters didn’t show up in 2007—or didn’t bother to vote for him if they did—and the PQ was trounced.

Liberals will have another secret weapon come election day: the closeted Liberal voter. For whatever reason—probably the long standing conceit that Quebec Liberals are in the sack with Ottawa, which has only intensified under Charest—Quebecers are less likely to tell pollsters that they are going to vote for le parti de Bourassa. “Bourassa used to say he gets four percent just on polling day,” says Université de Montréal political science professor Bruce Hicks. “People just don’t want to say it on the phone.”

Since the start of the campaign, both the PQ and the ADQ have trained their sights squarely on Charest, hoping to capitalize on Quebecers’ irritatation at his hasty election call. But the biggest obstacle standing between them and the reins of power appears to be that Quebecers just can’t be bothered to punish him for it. Exploiting that inertia might be the best Liberal campaign strategy of all.

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