The events of the last week of this Quebec election campaign have made clear that the rise of Québec Solidaire is a far greater concern for the mandarins and luminaries of the Parti Québécois than their own moribund campaign as it limps disconsolately to the finish line.
Gilles Duceppe was trotted out yet again to castigate those disloyal voters who would consider voting QS, a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ tradition at this point, while the Quebec City riding association for his old party, the federal Bloc Québécois, announced they were breaking with the PQ and endorsing QS’ candidates in the national capital. That’s never happened before.
Call it a demographic shift. Call it a changing of the guard. PQ support is concentrated among the old and nearly old, while Saturday’s final Leger poll of the campaign showed QS would win the election if only those under 35 voted. Change, at one pace or another, is clearly in the air.
PQ leader Jean-François Lisée, meanwhile, has gone somewhat rogue in the campaign’s last days, attacking QS as Marxist and extremist, decrying claims by QS co-spokesperson Manon Massé that her party was the inheritor of the spirit of René Lévesque as a “grave insult to his memory” and launching a somewhat bizarre broadside attack on Massé in the last debate for not being the real leader of her party (QS is a democratic party with two spokespeople and no leader).
According to former PQ cabinet minister Bernard Drainville, the off-script attacks took advisors and party leaders by surprise, and led the party executive to reprimand their leader in a conference call Tuesday. An unrepentant Lisée has, however, continued to focus his attacks on QS, and one can certainly understand why it is the party of Massé that he fears most.
An existential threat to the PQ
The last five polls have the PQ between 18 and 20 per cent of the popular vote. The same polls have QS between 16 and 17 per cent. Saturday’s final poll of the campaign by Leger had the PQ at 19 and QS at 17. For the PQ that would be the worst showing in the party’s 50-year history, worse even than their first election in 1970, when they commanded a mere 23 per cent of the vote and won only seven seats. For QS it would represent more than double the support they received in the 2014 election, and a surge in support from the roughly 10 per cent they polled at the start of this campaign. They are in fact the only party that has gained significant support over the last month.
QS could surpass the PQ in share of the popular vote on Monday, and while they likely won’t surpass the PQ in number of seats due to a more efficient distribution of PQ support in our first-past-the-post system, it will be hard for the PQ to maintain their calls for strategic voting when the more “strategic” vote for progressives and sovereigntists in the next election may well be QS.
Lisée’s panicked reaction to the emergence of QS is reminiscent of how the emergence of the PQ was treated by established parties in the 1970s — so much so that QS responded to his attacks by releasing a video that contrasted footage of Pierre Roy, a Union Nationale MNA, denouncing the PQ as Quebec’s version of Fidel Castro coming to turn the province into a banana republic with audio of Lisée making similar charges against QS.
Much as the Union Nationale was eventually replaced by the PQ, it seems increasingly clear — on the basis of demographics if nothing else — that the PQ will be replaced by QS. The only real question is how swiftly that happens.
Six ridings to watch on election day
Monday should give us some clues. Can QS break out of their urban base on the island of Montreal and demonstrate an ability to win seats in other regions of Quebec? It seems likely with these poll numbers and the outsized local popularity of QS candidate Catherine Dorion that that they will capture at least one seat in Quebec City: Taschereau. Two is within the realm of possibility with former Option Nationale leader Sol Zanetti running a strong campaign in the neighbouring district of Jean-Lesage.
In the Estrie region southeast of Montreal the riding of Sherbrooke is shaping up to be a four-way race with QS in the thick of things. Quebec’s sixth largest city, Sherbrooke is an urban centre with a large student population. It’s fertile ground for QS, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it go orange on Monday.
But what of the regions? Capturing a seat in Quebec’s notoriously bureaucratic and right-wing capital would be impressive, same with a beachhead in Sherbrooke, but can the party show that it is more than an urban phenomenon?
Rimouski is a riding many will be watching, due to an impressive third place finish there in the 2014 election by QS candidate Marie-Neige Besner. In that election the PQ won with 40 per cent of the vote, the Liberals came second with 30 and QS came third with 16. A swing of 10 points from the PQ to QS might be enough to turn it orange, but that’s a lot. It’s a real long shot, but if it happened it would be a dagger to the heart of the PQ and a signal of a wider shift to QS outside of Montreal. Early results from Rimouski will be a good gauge of how the PQ–QS fight is playing out in the regions, but it should be expected to remain blue.
If only one seat in the non-urban regions of Quebec goes to QS on Monday, my bet would be on Rouyn-Noranda-Témiscamingue. Located on Quebec’s southwest border, the riding includes the city of Rouyn-Noranda and other small and medium-sized rural municipalities to the north of North Bay, Ontario. Since its creation in 1981, it has alternated between the Liberals and PQ in every election, a pattern that would give it to the PQ this year. One projection has it as a statistical dead heat between PQ, CAQ and QS candidates, with the Liberals not far behind. On Monday, it might be one of Quebec’s few truly four-way races.
That’s a good situation for QS to pull off an upset. If PQ support has softened in Rouyn-Noranda-Témiscamingue as it has in more urban regions of the province, QS could consolidate enough sovereigntist and progressive voters to come out on top. In the 2014 election, the party came fourth with almost 12 per cent of the vote, so it’s a big hill to climb. However, if it really is a four-way race, anyone can come up the middle.
Finally, we come to a riding that no one should be surprised to see fall to QS, and yet it would be their largest symbolic victory of the night: the northeastern Montreal riding of Rosemont, currently held by PQ leader Jean-François Lisée.
East Montreal is the heartland of QS. They will easily hold the ridings of Gouin, Mercier and Saint-Marie-Saint-Jacques, and projections show them leading in the neighbouring ridings of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and Laurier-Dorion, and within striking distance in the northern Montreal seat of Maurice-Richard. Nestled among all these orange ridings is the district of Rosemont.
Vincent Marissal, a prominent former journalist and columnist for Montreal’s La Presse, was the highest profile star candidate recruited by QS for this election. Running in Rosemont, he was assigned the task of knocking off the PQ leader, also a former journalist. It will be a tight race no matter who wins, but with QS surging in the polls as the PQ flounders, and the latest projections showing the riding leaning towards QS, an upset may be in the cards.
There are four things to watch for on Monday that would increase the chances of QS supplanting the PQ as the third party in Quebec politics before the next election:
- A victory outside Montreal. Taschereau would do the trick, but adding a seat in the regions to a win in Quebec City would go a long way to making QS a credible option province-wide.
- A popular vote win. Polls show little daylight between QS and the PQ, with only two to three percentage points separating them. Beating the PQ in the popular vote is within reach, would be a huge boost for party morale and would trigger a new level of respect for the suddenly third-place party.
- A seat count victory over the PQ. This one is truly a long shot. Due to a more efficient distribution of their vote, projections show the likeliest outcome for the PQ is around 13 seats. For QS, it’s seven. Even if QS beats the PQ in the popular vote, they’ll be unlikely to win more seats. If they do though, it’s probably game over for the PQ. This is the real nightmare scenario for pequistes.
- A victory in Rosemont. It appears Lisée’s time as PQ leader will come to an end at the conclusion of this campaign, no matter who wins in Rosemont. Barring a miraculous comeback, he will have led the PQ to their worst-ever election result following a tenure marked by clashes with party leaders and even his own campaign team and deputy leader. But the symbolism of QS knocking off the PQ leader in his own riding will be impossible to ignore, and will put wind beneath the wings of the solidaires.
As I wrote earlier this month in an analysis of the Quebec election campaign for Jacobin magazine, there are things to not like about QS. Their position on visible religious symbols is contrary to the Quebec and Canadian charters (as are the positions of all four major parties), and their preoccupation with sovereignty caps their ceiling in a province where nearly seven in ten people no longer support independence.
But the PQ is a malignant cancer on Quebec politics. The PQ used to be a “big tent” party, uniting sovereigntists from the left to the right. But now that they’ve renounced their raison d’etre of holding a referendum, and pivoted from a preoccupation with social programs to a preoccupation with the paranoid fears of those who hate Muslims and view immigrants with suspicion, they’ve become dangerous. A party that stands for nothing will also stop at nothing.
Ten years ago, most of the leftists I know would have been voting for the PQ. This time around, I’m not sure I know any PQ voters in real life. The party’s craven pandering to a xenophobic fringe has removed them from consideration for many young Quebecers — indeed the PQ is a distant fourth among voters under 35 in the latest polls — and that damage is likely irreparable.
So whether federalist or sovereigntist, leftist or not, we should all welcome the replacement of an old, out-of-touch party so devoid of meaning that they’ll throw minorities under the bus for a fleeting electoral advantage with a party driven by youthful energy and earnest principle.
If Monday's results give QS a leg up on the PQ it would be a long overdue renewal of Quebec’s tired political landscape.