This article originally appeared in the French edition of Ricochet and has been translated.
This dull campaign has taken an astonishing turn as the federal election approaches. As in 2011, it is in Quebec that the greatest electoral shift is coming. And in a Parliament that looks set to shatter, this is enough to hinder the plans of the two parties likely to be in power in the aftermath of the election.
The script seemed already written; it only remained to see it unfold. The Bloc Québécois, shaken by the internal dissensions of Martine Ouellet’s time, was once again going to fight for its survival. The NDP was presumed dead, the other parties left to fight over its remains. As a result, the Liberal Party was betting on gains to offset predictable losses in the rest of Canada in order to maintain its majority. The Conservatives wanted to pull out enough seats that, combined with wins elsewhere, would let it to sneak into power. Even the Greens hoped to elect a first Quebec deputy under their banner, if only by keeping the seat of Pierre Nantel (Longueuil—Saint-Hubert), who defected to them from the NDP on the eve of the outbreak of the election. There isn’t much else in this scenario.
Under the combined effect of the rise of the Bloc in Quebec and that of the NDP in Ontario, Atlantic Canada and British Columbia, the spectre of minority government has returned to haunt the electorate, invoking memories of calls for strategic voting and attacks against the Bloc.
Debate turning point
The pivotal moment of the campaign was certainly the debates, first the French-language debate Face à face broadcast on TVA and then the English-language official leaders’ debate. In the first case, Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet surprised with his firm but calm and expert (even professorial) tone, which inspires confidence — in contrast to Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, who was particularly bad, and not only because he wasn’t speaking in his first language. From that point on, Conservative support in Quebec melted at a high speed to the benefit of the Bloc. And that was enough to make the ruling party a threat to Scheer’s troops, but also to Justin Trudeau’s, who took advantage of the Bloc-NDP and Bloc-Conservative division in 2015 to win a strong majority of seats in Quebec.
In the case of the English debate, it was Jagmeet Singh's performance that was the big revelation. His frank, friendly, and uninhibited tone offered an impossible-to-ignore contrast to Trudeau’s wooden tongue. And it breathed life into a campaign that was initially seen as disastrous for the orange party. Now the NDP is threatening Liberal seats in Ontario, British Columbia and the Atlantic, as well as Conservative-dominated seats in Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Blanchet and Singh have thus completely scrambled the electoral map, which makes the outcome of the vote highly uncertain, because the colour of the party in power will play out in a close seat count.
Even if the Bloc is still far from the percentages of support it enjoyed in Quebec during its best years (49 per cent in 2004, 42 per cent in 2006, 38 per cent in 2008), it seems to have rebounded from its low seat count in 2011 (four) and proportion of the vote in 2015 (19 per cent).
With about 30 per cent voter support in Quebec according to the latest polls, the Bloc could win more than 35 of the province’s 78 seats. Ironically, this is due to the division of the vote, which could benefit the party in many three-way races — the same division of the vote that was almost fatal for it in 2011. This is a major turnaround for a party coming from a distant third place, especially if it wins the majority of seats in the province. And the prospect of a minority government plays in its favour: it can present itself as the party that can get the best deal for the Quebec population.
This recovery upsets the plans of the Liberals and Conservatives. On the part of the Liberals, not only will it not have the expected gains, but it is likely to report significant losses; at this time, Trudeau is crossing his fingers to obtain a minority mandate. The Conservatives also risk losses in terms of seats, which could be equally crucial for access to power. On the NDP side, although it is resigned to a certain decline, the hope is that the division of the vote among the other parties will allow it to keep a few seats, including Laurier—Sainte-Marie, Berthier—Maskinongé and Sherbrooke. Finally, the Greens will not make the breakthrough they hoped for, following a messy campaign.
Whatever Scheer and the Conservatives think, to be first in a Canadian parliamentary election is not enough to guarantee that you get to form government: you still have to have the confidence of the House, meaning you need the support of a majority of MPs in a vote of confidence. And what polls tell us is that it’s almost impossible to know which party can earn that trust, as the numbers are tight. One thing seems predictable at this time: the party that will form the next government could very well be the one with the lowest popular support in Canadian history, breaking Joe Clark’s 1979 record of 34 per cent.
Different minority government scenarios are possible. The Liberal Party could come first and seek the support of the NDP (and possibly the Greens) to stay in power. Or the Conservatives could come first but be blocked by a majority of these other three parties. Or, the Liberal-NDP-Green alliance as well as the Conservative party could need the favour (or abstention) of the Bloc Québécois to have the confidence of the House. In short, the permutations are numerous to arrive at the magic number of 170 seats required to have a majority.
Although it is separatist, the Bloc is not Sinn Féin — the Irish separatist party that elects members from Northern Ireland who choose not to sit in the British Parliament because of their convictions. The Bloc plays the Canadian parliamentary game and will make sure to get as many concessions as possible from anyone who wants to govern. In any case, both the rise of Blanchet’s party and the weakening of any parliamentary majority (which would give the Bloc this bargaining power) are due to a change in the mood of the Quebec electorate.
After sending the Bloc Québécois to Ottawa as the official opposition in 1993, having prevented the formation of majority governments from 2004 to 2011, and having provoked the orange wave of 2011 and then given Trudeau a majority in 2015, Quebec is the wild card of Canadian federal politics once again.