Voter turnout low in corruption-ridden Montreal as Denis Coderre elected mayor

MONTREAL – Even after two mayors resigned in scandal, and revelations of kickbacks and bid-rigging that sucked up their tax dollars, most Montrealers still didn’t bother voting for a new civic leader.

There had even been a series of dramatic ads imploring people to vote in the name of democracy, and to claim any right to complain about the state of local governance.

It’s believed just over 43 per cent heeded the call, a marginal increase from 39 per cent four years earlier.

The province’s municipal affairs minister chose to see the glass as half-full.

“There was a five per cent increase, like elsewhere in Quebec,” Sylvain Gaudreault said Monday, a day after municipal elections across the province.

“It’s not enough. I would have liked a lot more in Montreal, but let’s be happy with an increase of five per cent and let’s build on it.”

Denis Coderre, a former longtime Liberal MP, was elected in Montreal by 32 per cent of those who voted. Doing the math, a number of his detractors Monday pointed out that at that support level, with that participation rate, that meant only 13 per cent of eligible voters had actually backed Coderre.

While they consoled themselves with that electoral arithmetic, Coderre was conciliatory and pledged to work with his opponents.

“We are at the crossroads right now, and I will be the mayor of all Montrealers,” Coderre said, promising to work with opposing parties who will hold the majority of council seats.

Montreal is, of course, far from alone in its paltry voter participation.

Over the last 40 years, turnout has been steadily declining in established democracies. North America, Western Europe and Japan have all seen reduced participation at the polls.

The trend is generally agreed to be undesirable, but there’s clashing opinion among political scientists about the impact on election outcomes, and on democracy itself.

One of those debates in about whether people who don’t follow politics, or don’t want to vote, should be forced to cast a ballot as they are in Australia and several Latin American countries.

Higher turnout, after all, hasn’t always meant smoother government.

Take Toronto… turnout rose drastically in 2010, but the city now finds itself with a mayor facing resignation demands from across the political spectrum.

In the election that made Rob Ford mayor, voter turnout shot up 11 per cent — from 39 per cent in 2006 to 50 per cent 2010.

Other cities have also had weak turnout lately. Calgary saw a 39 per cent turnout in last month’s election, down from 53 per cent in 2010. In Edmonton, 35 per cent voted last month, even though the job was up for grabs after the previous mayor stepped down.

But the winner in Montreal didn’t appear to be bothered by the low turnout numbers.

Long after the TV cameras had been put away and most of the reporters had gone home Sunday, Coderre continued to make the rounds — back-slapping, hugging and two-cheek kissing his supporters.

Alex Jagric, a 20-year-old McGill University student, waited patiently to get his photo taken with the new mayor.

“He has a dynamic personality,” said Jagric, who helped run the campaign of one of Coderre’s team in Montreal’s west end.

“And he’s not going to be partisan, he’s going to do what it takes to get things done in this city, like fill potholes.”

At times, even that has seemed an impossible task in this city.

The last two mayors have resigned in controversy; the most recent one was arrested on fraud charges; and a steady dose of allegations of bid-rigging on construction contracts have corroded locals’ trust in city hall.

Coderre plans to create an inspector-general’s position while acting as a more forceful advocate for local issues, in the style of other big-personality mayors and in sharp contrast to the lower-key types who recently held the position in Montreal.

A persistent question of the campaign was whether Coderre really was the best-suited candidate to clean up Canada’s second-biggest city.

His supporters insist he is.

“He’s never been involved in a scandal in all these years, so I don’t see why he would get into trouble as mayor,” said Meme Noel, who came to cheer on Coderre even though he recently moved outside the city limits.

Coderre’s share of the vote Sunday was about 32 per cent compared to 27 per cent for Melanie Joly, a fellow federal Liberal and a political newcomer who began her campaign in such obscurity that she was initially barred from participating in debates.

But the political rookie forced her way into those debates in the final weeks as polls showed she’d become the principal threat to Coderre.

The third-place finisher, Richard Bergeron of the left-leaning Projet Montreal party, lauded Joly as a “rising star” of local, provincial or Canadian politics.

All in all, it was a good day for federal Liberals.

The winner was a Chretien-Martin cabinet minister. The runner-up, Joly, was a Justin Trudeau organizer. And Stephane Dion’s wife, counter-terrorism expert Janine Krieber, won a seat although it was put to a recount.

The result had Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau tweeting Monday: “Congratulations Denis! Excited to continue to work with you!”

Across Quebec, voters hoped to turn the page on an era of scandal-plagued leadership in provincewide municipal elections.

The elections came as the province’s Charbonneau Commission continues to hear shocking testimony detailing a system of kickbacks and illegal party financing at the municipal level.

In Montreal, Coderre was the perceived frontrunner from the start. But he was dogged by attacks from his opponents on ethics issues, most notably his party’s ties to former members of the corruption-ridden, and now-dissolved, Union Montreal party.

One borough mayor aligned with Coderre’s ticket, Michel Bissonnet, was the subject of a two-page spread last weekend in Montreal’s La Presse exploring his ties to key actors under the scrutiny of Quebec’s corruption commission.

Still, Bissonnet won his St-Leonard borough with 65 per cent of the vote.

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