Is Quebec about to follow in New Brunswick’s footsteps and become the second province to hold a fall election that fails to sort out which party will run its government for the next few years?
With less than a week to go until the Oct. 1 vote, the possibility that Monday’s election will see a repetition of the New Brunswick scenario cannot be ruled out.
In that province, only one seat separates the leading Tories, with 22 seats, from the Liberals. Both are scrambling to find enough support among the third parties to command a fragile majority in the 49-seat Legislative Assembly.
They make competing claims to legitimacy. By the narrowest of margins, Blaine Higgs’s Tories took more ridings, but Brian Gallant’s Liberals won the popular vote by half a dozen points. The Green Party and the People’s Alliance each hold three seats.
In Quebec, the latest polls show a statistical tie between Philippe Couillard’s Liberals and François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec province-wide. But because the Liberal vote is heavily concentrated in Quebec’s non-Francophone areas, the CAQ has the seat edge.
Like Gallant in New Brunswick, Couillard could lose the election on Monday despite getting more votes. It would not be a first. In 1998, the Parti Québécois under Lucien Bouchard won a majority of seats despite losing the popular vote to Jean Charest’s Liberals.
To compound the uncertainty, the Quebec Liberals usually do better at the ballot box than in the polls, where the undecided column routinely turns out to have included a significant number of discreet Liberal supporters. And the third-place PQ may be more adept at getting its vote out than its CAQ and Québec Solidaire rivals.
As in New Brunswick, Quebec’s election will feature scores of three- and four-way battles. Those can result in unexpected outcomes that do not always align with the provincial trend.
To wit, in the last federal election, the Bloc Québécois got fewer votes than at the time of the 2011 NDP orange wave, but still sent six more MPs to the House of Commons.
Stephen Harper’s Conservatives similarly finished the 2015 election with more than twice as many seats as they had going into the campaign, yet the party’s share of the popular vote increased by less than half a percentage point.
Couillard needs a lot of discreet francophone supporters to come out of the woodwork and some favourable splits to win re-election on Monday. But were he to finish — as Gallant did — a close second in the seat sweepstakes, he too could use the incumbent’s prerogative to test the confidence of the National Assembly in a minority Liberal government.
It is far from certain that such a government would have a shot at surviving its first confidence vote. The notion that it is time for a change has been a powerful underlying theme of the Quebec campaign. Given that, it might be politically suicidal for any Quebec opposition party to prop up a Liberal minority government.
Moreover, the CAQ, the PQ and Québec Solidaire have all signed a pre-election pact that commits them to introduce a more proportional voting system in time for the next provincial vote. Couillard is adamantly opposed to the project. To listen to the premier this week, he would rather have a minority Liberal government fall over electoral reform than join the other parties in their bid to move away from the first-past-the-post system.
But a minority CAQ government would also have some reaching out to do. Legault and Quebec Solidaire sit at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, and the CAQ poses an existential threat to the PQ’s already uncertain future. The latter has little interest in contributing to the success of a Legault-led government.
Still, there are less glaring red lines between the various Quebec parties than between their New Brunswick counterparts.
The NB Tories and the Greens are on a collision course over the province’s participation in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s climate change framework. By comparison, all the parties likely to cohabit in the next National Assembly are onside with carbon pricing. And none is seen as a toxic ally for a possible minority government in the way that the People’s Alliance is in NB.
On that score, the election of three MLAs committed to scaling down bilingual services in Canada’s only officially bilingual province has not gone unnoticed in Quebec.
Should Blaine Higgs’s Tories strike a governing arrangement on the back of the language rights of the province’s Acadian minority, Andrew Scheer’s federal Conservatives could have some explaining to do in Quebec next fall.
Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics. Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert