When the next election is held in Quebec, François Legault hopes to ride a wave of change into office.
But his Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) will have to overcome several obstacles in order for Legault to become the province’s next premier.
After the provincial election of 2007 and the federal election of 2011, Quebecers have demonstrated their willingness to change their voting habits drastically. In 2007, the Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) represented a change from the old quarrels between the Liberals and the Parti Québécois. In 2011, the New Democrats were a refreshing departure from the federalist/sovereigntist debate.
But François Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister, does not have the personal appeal of a Jack Layton or even a Mario Dumont.
Nevertheless, he hopes to follow in their footsteps. After swallowing the ADQ, the CAQ is poised to win the regions that Dumont’s party swept in 2007: Quebec City and suburban Montreal. But the CAQ is a long way from repeating the success of the NDP in the last federal election, a necessity if Legault hopes to form the next government after the next election, likely to come this spring or in the fall.
With the CAQ dropping some five to eight points since December, Legault is no longer in a position to win a majority government. Jean Charest’s Liberals still dominate on the island of Montreal and are even tied with the Coalition in and around the city. The Parti Québécois is showing signs of life as well, narrowing the gap between them and the CAQ among francophones. This means that Legault can only count on his base in Quebec City – he will need to fight tooth and nail everywhere else.
Montreal prevented Dumont’s ADQ from winning the election in 2007, and it could pose the same problem for Legault. The New Democrats managed to win in both francophone rural Quebec and anglophone urban Montreal, and there is some indication that the CAQ could do the same. With the endorsement of the controversial former president of Alliance Quebec, William Johnson, and the possible candidacy under the CAQ banner of Marlene Jennings, a former Liberal MP, Legault has already shown he can find support in Quebec’s anglophone community. He may yet have some interesting candidates to announce on the island of Montreal in the coming weeks.
But anglophones have not warmed up to the CAQ. The latest polls put the Coalition’s support at between 11 and 18 per cent among non-francophones, some 50 points behind the Liberals. And with Legault speaking of the need to defend the French language at a party rally earlier this week, how the CAQ leader hopes to have his message resonate among both linguistic groups is difficult to understand.
That balance, between anglophones and francophones and between federalists and sovereigntists, will be challenging to maintain. It could be the kind of voting coalition that sweeps the CAQ to power. Or, the mixed message could push voters back to the more defined positions of the Liberals and the PQ. The recent comments by committed sovereigntist François Rebello, a former PQ MNA who is now a member of the CAQ, likely contributed to the increase in support among sovereigntists for the CAQ (from 35 per cent to 41 per cent in the last few weeks) and the drop in support among federalists (from 50 per cent to 47 per cent).
Being caught between two fires could sink François Legault’s chances at winning the next election. But if Quebecers decide to reject the old parties once again, it could be his ticket to the premiership.
Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls, and electoral projections.