Incumbent Denis Coderre, a former Liberal MP whose first term in office has been dogged by accusations of arrogance, poor management, wasted money, impulsive decisions and intimidation of journalists, has been thrust from what he expected to be a cakewalk to reelection into a dead heat.

Leading the last published poll by the narrowest of margins is his challenger, Valérie Plante. The former community organizer came out of nowhere four years ago to defeat ex-PQ cabinet minister Louise Harel for an east-end council seat, and won the leadership of Projet Montréal last year.

She has run, by virtually all accounts, an excellent campaign. A near-unknown earlier this year, she seized the city’s attention with a provocative ad campaign dubbing her the right “man for the job,” and a series of TV and debate appearances where her warmth and easy smile provided a stark contrast to Coderre’s dour bombast. She is vying to make history as Montreal’s first female mayor.

Coderre’s tattered aura of invincibility

Perhaps due in part to Coderre’s antagonistic relationship with the press, including attempts to spy on journalists covering him negatively, the city’s media appear fed up with the mayor and have offered generally positive coverage of Plante’s campaign. His candidates and supporters have become visibly demoralized, angry and frustrated in recent weeks, as they come to terms with a much closer race than they were expecting.

Public opinion on the upstart environmentalist and left-leaning party Plante leads is starkly divided along geographic lines. Poised to sweep centre city boroughs like the Plateau-Mont-Royal, Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie and the Sud-Ouest, the party struggles to build support in the periphery. Merged suburbs where the car remains king like Saint-Léonard, Montréal-Nord and Rivière-des-Prairies-Pointe-aux-Trembles are the Coderre heartland.

Often lost in the aura of invincibility Coderre so artfully weaves for himself is the fact that he won the last municipal election with only 32 per cent of the vote. In 2013 voters in many west-end districts with high concentrations of non-francophones rejected both Coderre and his main challenger, Projet founder Richard Bergeron, opting instead for a fresh face with a brand new party in Mélanie Joly.

Joly is now long gone, serving as Canada’s heritage minister after her election to parliament in 2015, and the party she founded is not running a candidate for city mayor.

Likewise, the late Marcel Côté’s Coalition Montreal party elected borough mayors and councillors in anglo- and allo-heavy boroughs like Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce and the Sud-Ouest in 2013. This time around their candidate for city mayor has withdrawn and endorsed Plante.

Sovereignty and the non-francophone vote

For many non-francophones sovereignty is a decisive issue, even at the ostensibly unrelated municipal level. They may not have liked Coderre in 2013, but they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the reputedly sovereigntist Bergeron and opted in large numbers for “neither of the above” options Joly or Côté.

After defecting in 2014 to join the city administration, Bergeron is now running with Coderre, whose reelection has been endorsed by sovereigntist heavy-hitters like former Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe. Plante, meanwhile, is a board member with the federalist Broadbent Institute in Ottawa and the giant-slayer who defeated Louise Harel. She’s also strongly opposed to Bill 62, which prohibits the wearing of religious face coverings while receiving public services, and called for a commission of inquiry into systemic racism long-before that call was briefly adopted by the Liberal government. It’s a profile that should be far more appealing to non-francophones.

Predictions for Sunday

Going into tomorrow’s election, we know roughly who will pull out the most votes in many of Montreal’s boroughs.

Note: Every vote cast for mayor of Montreal is counted individually, so even if you live in a district that is very safe for one party, your vote for mayor of Montreal matters as much as any other.

Of Montreal’s 19 boroughs Montréal-Nord, Rivière-des-Prairies-Pointe-aux-Trembles, Saint-Léonard and Saint-Laurent should all be solid holds for team Coderre, while the Plateau-Mont-Royal, Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie and the Sud-Ouest should deliver big margins for Projet.

In Lachine, borough mayor Claude Dauphin’s troubles with corruption investigators keep him off the Coderre ticket, but his “independent” local party will deliver their voters to Coderre, barring an upset for Projet in the borough. Likewise the independent mayor of LaSalle has endorsed Plante, and in Outremont it’s a three way race between Projet, Coderre and an indepedent candidate. Anjou seems likely to reelect their independent borough mayor, and again deliver most of their votes to Coderre at the city level.

In the urban boroughs of Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Villeray-Saint-Michel-Parc-Extension and Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, where Projet lost borough mayor races by only a few points but elected several councillors, it’s reasonable to assume the changing municipal landscape will be enough to deliver majorities to Plante. Likewise in the downtown borough of Ville-Marie, which elected two Projet candidates and one from Joly’s party in 2013.

That leaves four boroughs where the outcome may decide the election: Verdun, Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, L’Île-Bizard-Sainte-Geneviève and Pierrefonds-Roxboro. What do those four west-end boroughs have in common? You guessed it, above average concentrations of non-francophones.

In Verdun and Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Coderre candidates beat out their Projet rivals for the position of borough mayor by margins of less than three per cent of the vote in 2013, while Projet elected several opposition councillors in each borough.

In that election, L’Île-Bizard-Sainte-Geneviève and Pierrefonds-Roxboro delivered wide swaths of votes to parties that are not running candidates for city mayor tomorrow. It’s hard to know which way they’ll swing this time.

One thing I am certain of is that if anglophones and allophones show up to vote tomorrow in large numbers, they could choose Montreal’s next mayor. It may just be that close.

So who’s going to win? Coderre boasts the vaunted big Liberal machine, and his team will effectively turn their core supporters out to vote. If turnout is depressed, perhaps by the rain which is forecast, and stays below around 50 per cent then the mayor should be re-elected. If turnout goes over 50 per cent it will be a sign of Plante’s grassroots ground game bearing fruit, and you should expect her to win easily. The higher the turnout the better for Plante and her candidates. No doubt Coderre’s team will be hoping for thunderstorms.

So get out and vote, and make sure your friends and family do as well. This election could well come down to a handful of votes in a couple of districts.

My fearless prediction? Based on the momentum Plante’s campaign has demonstrated, I think Montreal elects its first female mayor on Sunday.

Ethan Cox is an editor with Ricochet Media, and served as director of English communications for Projet Montréal during the 2013 municipal election campaign.