Which Quebec party will benefit from CAQ woes?

Martin Patriquin on the return to a two-party system in Quebec and where the votes will land

<p>Former Parti Quebecois MNA Francois Rebello, right, speaks to reporters as CAQ leader Francois Legault looks on at a news conference Tuesday, January 10, 2012  in Saint Constant, Que. Francois Rebello becomes the ninth sitting MNA to join the ranks of the new Coalition for Quebec&#8217;s Future.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz</p>

Former Parti Quebecois MNA Francois Rebello, right, speaks to reporters as CAQ leader Francois Legault looks on at a news conference Tuesday, January 10, 2012 in Saint Constant, Que. Francois Rebello becomes the ninth sitting MNA to join the ranks of the new Coalition for Quebec’s Future.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Coalition Avenir Quebec leader Francois Legault speaks to reporters following a leaders debate at a television studio in Montreal on Tuesday. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Coalition Avenir Quebec leader Francois Legault. (Graham Hughes/CP)

The Quebec election campaign is just over a week old, and we are four days in the wake of Pierre Karl Péladeau’s entrance into the fray as a candidate for the Parti Québécois, which yours truly prattled on about in this week’s magazine. If it wasn’t clear before la tempête Péladeau—and the former Quebecor CEO’s out-of-the-closet indépendantiste declaration when announcing his candidacy—it is now: the Quebec election is quickly becoming a good old two-horse race of yore.

It isn’t to say François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec isn’t a viable option, or that Legault himself isn’t running a respectable campaign. It’s just that it’s difficult, even damn well near impossible, for a third party to survive in a province long on the knife edge of the Yes/No, sovereignty/federalism question. What I wrote many moons ago remains true today: Quebec’s political culture has atrophied as a result. But that is a subject for another blog post, and part of the reason why I run out of bourbon so often.

Suffice to say the CAQ is in trouble, and the winner of the election next month will be determined in large part by who can best pick apart its carcass. The question is, which party most benefits from a CAQ collapse?

Carcass? Okay, maybe not quite. I doubt very much the CAQ will disappear completely. The party has a handful of MNAs in the Quebec City region who won by double digits in 2012. A look at L’Actualité’s très handy 2012 electoral map shows certain CAQ MNAs are well-entrenched, with Gérard Deltell, Éric Caire, André Spénard and François Bonnardel having won their seats by an average of 27 percentage points last time around.

I would argue, though, that most if not all other CAQ seats are up for grabs—including François Legault’s. He won his riding of L’Assomption by a relative squeaker, and is now up against star Péquiste candidate Pierre Paquette. Poll aggregator Éric Grenier of 308.com has the CAQ at a ceiling of six seats. The party will be lucky to get half that.

So it begs the question: which party most benefits from the CAQ, the Liberals or the PQ?

It’s a tricky question. Way back in 2011, Léger Marketing did lay of the land on François Legault’s potential re-entry into the Quebec political sphere (he was a PQ MNA and one-time cabinet minister before leaving the party in 2009.) He promised something enticing indeed: a nationalist, economy-first political party that was nonetheless untethered to the federalist/sovereignist question. No flag waving, no referendum talk, just fiscal conservatism. PQ and Liberal voters were intrigued—but to what degree?

(Translation: If a new political party led by François Legault existed, for which political party would you vote for if there was an election today?)


The poll suggests that more PQ voters would make the jump (24 per cent) than Liberals (17 per cent). This on its own would suggest the PQ would be on the losing end of the CAQ equation. Yet the 2012 elections suggested otherwise: of the 19 seats the party won, five were at the expense of the Liberals and four at the expense of the PQ. (The remaining 10 were either held by MNAs from CAQ predecessor Action Démocratique du Québec, or were new ridings carved out fresh for the 2012 electoral map.)

There are other caveats from that 2011 Léger poll. This was a single snapshot captured during a time when PQ leader Pauline Marois was very unpopular, with both party faithful and the Quebec population in general. Time (and the so-called Quebec values charter) has changed that somewhat. Today, much like their respective parties, Marois and Couillard are neck-and-neck in the polls. Marois also has a clear advantage with the Francophone vote. The PQ is targeting CAQ seats around the island of Montreal for good reason: in 2012, the PQ came a very close second in nearly all of them. What was true for the PQ in the Montreal ‘burbs was true for the Liberals in the Quebec-City region—though here, the CAQ mostly won with much higher margins over the second-place Liberals.

If there’s any blue sky for Couillard, it’s the Quebec City region’s wariness of the PQ’s politics, referendum chatter and obsession with sovereignty. The PQ has gnashed many teeth over its inability to break into Quebec’s capital region; Agnès Maltais is the area’s sole Péquiste MNA. If Péladeau is a boon to the Montreal Suburbs, his very sovereignist declarations the other day were like Kryptonite in Quebec City. A CROP poll conducted following PKP’s announcement had the Liberals up by seven points in the region.

Lastly, there’s the massive undecided vote—52 per cent according to CROP. I suspect a considerable percentage of those undecideds are CAQ voters who would like to go with their conscience and vote CAQ once again. But, like many Quebecers, they will pinch their nose and vote against something, rather than for it.

And who does Léger suggest is the second-choice receptacle for CAQ voters? The Liberal Party of Quebec, at 44 per cent. (The PQ is the second choice for only 19 per cent of CAQ types.) “In the last few months, the CAQ lost voters to the PQ because of the charter. But if you look at our last poll, you’ll see the Liberals remain the CAQ voter’s second-choice pick. So a large dive in the CAQ vote could well benefit the Liberals,” says Léger VP Sébastien Dallaire.

After a brief dalliance with a third party, I suspect Quebecers are done with experimenting. It’s too bad, but at least it’s never dull.