Quebec, known for producing political waves and confounding pollsters, did it again last night. While there was certainly a mini orange wave — perhaps an orange swell? — the tsunami of the evening was a light blue.
Most observers were expecting a Coalition Avenir Québec win, but no pollster captured the size of the wave that saw the CAQ go from third-party status with 22 seats in Quebec’s 125-seat National Assembly to a majority government with 74 seats.
That’s bad news for Quebecers fond of social programs and also for immigrants. The CAQ has promised to reduce immigration levels and expel immigrants who don’t pass a language and values test after three years in the province, and their approach to social services will be a continuation of the Liberal austerity regime, with a focus on privatization.
But this was a change election. With the Parti Québécois committing to not hold a referendum on sovereignty if elected, the venerable sovereigntist party was deprived of its raison d’etre, and the erstwhile federalists in the Liberal Party were deprived of their favourite bogeyman.
Freed from their perceived obligation to vote along federalist or sovereigntist lines, many Quebecers abandoned the traditional parties for new upstarts on the left (Québec solidaire) and the right (CAQ). That’s not terribly surprising when you consider that a poll last year showed exactly half the province agreed with the statement that Quebec’s political class has betrayed the province over the last 30 years.
There was a lot of pent-up frustration with the old-line parties, and it boiled over in this election, producing new highs for the CAQ and QS, and record lows for the Liberals and PQ.
The orange wavelet
Although QS was within two points of the PQ in the campaign’s final polls, many commentators were quick to assert that they would again underperform their polling due to their concentration of support among young voters, who often don’t show up at the ballot box. It’s unclear at this point whether youth turnout surged in an election that saw an overall drop in turnout, or if QS won over more older voters than expected, but the results are an almost unbelievable best-case scenario for Quebec’s new third party.
Tied in seat count with the PQ for most of the night, a late swing in one riding left QS with 10 seats and the PQ with nine. One of Quebec’s most popular projection sites said the likeliest outcome for the PQ was 13 seats, and the likeliest outcome for QS was seven, so the final result was shocking. Neither party won enough seats to qualify for official party status, but QS is now the third-largest party in the National Assembly and will be treated as such going forward.
While pollsters missed the boat on the CAQ’s surge, they weren’t far off on the battle for third. The PQ ended up with 17 per cent of the popular vote, while QS finished with 16 per cent. The final Leger poll of the campaign had the parties at 19 and 17 per cent respectively. A popular vote victory was the one item QS didn’t check off their wish list, but it hardly matters with the more important seat count victory under their belts.
QS has surpassed the PQ as the vehicle for progressive aspirations in the province, and should consolidate much of the PQ’s support by the time the next election rolls around, leaving them as a legitimate, if distant, contender for power in four years. It’s a startling development for a party that entered the election as the distant fourth party, with only three seats.
A best-case scenario for QS
Speaking of that wishlist, here are a few of the highlights of the evening for QS:
- With Vincent Marissal’s victory in Rosemont over PQ leader Jean-François Lisée, QS scored a big moral victory over the PQ. Lisée, who resigned as PQ leader last night after leading his party to the worst electoral result in its 50-year history, is probably relieved he won’t have to hang around the legislature.
- Coming into the election, QS was derided as a party of east end Montreal that couldn’t appeal to voters outside the province’s largest city. They blew that myth to smithereens with not one but two victories in notoriously right-wing Quebec City, one in the urban riding of Sherbrooke and perhaps most significantly a narrow victory in the rural riding of Rouyn-Noranda–Témiscamingue. With seats in four regions of the province, QS is no longer a Montreal party.
- Speaking of Montreal, the party added three new seats to the three they already held on the island, winning most of their seats by massive margins. Their gains were limited to east end Montreal, but perhaps the most shocking result is the number of second-place finishes for the party. In northeastern Montreal’s Maurice-Richard riding, the party came within 531 votes of defeating the Liberals, and in Montreal’s southwest, a burgeoning and linguistically mixed area populated by many young people and members of the economic precariat, the party came second to the Liberals in the ridings of Verdun and Saint-Henri-Sainte-Anne by around 4,000 votes. These ridings will be targeted by the party in the next election. Even in the notoriously Liberal and anglophone ridings of Westmount-Saint-Louis, D’Arcy-McGee and Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, the party came second, albeit with a small fraction of the Liberal vote.
On Sunday I published a piece asking if this election could be the end of the PQ, suggesting that QS was poised to replace them. I named four winning conditions for QS to become the province’s third party: a victory in Rosemont, a popular vote win, a seat count win and a beachhead in Quebec’s regions.
Today I’m flabbergasted. While QS came up just short in the popular vote, they won every riding I thought was possible for them to win and satisfied every other condition for a rapid realignment of Quebec’s political landscape. It’s now clear that QS will replace the PQ as the primary vehicle for leftist and sovereigntist voters before the next election.
With the CAQ in power it may be a long four years, but an expansion of the austerity and cuts of the Liberals alongside privatization of public services and mean-spirited attacks on immigrants will also strengthen the hand of QS going into the 2022 election as the only party offering a radically different vision.
The two-election strategy
It was always clear that QS had a two-election strategy in mind: In this election they would seek to consolidate progressive and sovereigntist voters and try to supplant the PQ as the primary vehicle for their political ambitions. Then, as the unified standard bearer for the left, they would take a run at government in 2022.
It’s why I suspect they chose to designate Manon Massé as their candidate for premier in this election, sending her to debates and events while somewhat sidelining their other co-spokesperson, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois. Massé is a formidable politician, and her plainspoken performances in the debates likely had a lot to do with QS’ success, but the democratic party’s tradition of alternation means putting her out front now will give the premier-designate role to Nadeau-Dubois in 2022.
Fully seasoned after five years in the National Assembly and in his 30s at that point, Nadeau-Dubois is the candidate the party believes can lead them to victory. A polarizing figure Quebecers tend to love or hate, he’ll have four years to win over detractors from his days at the head of Quebec’s radical student movement.
With the motived support of a plurality of young voters — polls showed QS leading among voters under 35 — and the most active and energized base of any politician in the province, his influence will only grow as demographic changes shift the balance of power from boomers to millenials.
I’m not suggesting QS will win the next election; the odds remain against them. But they could, and for the first time in the history of North America’s most leftist elected party, winning power is within the realm of the possible.