POLITICS

Quebecers don't buy into constitutional truce offered by ex-sovereigntist

09/04/2012 09:41 EDT | Updated 11/04/2012 05:12 EST
REPENTIGNY, Que. - Its promise of a constitutional truce with Ottawa wasn't enough to sway voters and it sputtered to a third-place electoral finish on Tuesday night, but the leader of Quebec's new nationalist party said it was now a "political force" to be reckoned with.

The Coalition for Quebec's Future roared out of the gates at the start of the election campaign, with star candidates and fiery rhetoric about corruption within the governing Liberals.

Leader Francois Legault, himself a former staunch sovereigntist, pitched himself as a viable alternative to the federalist-sovereigntist dynamic that has dominated Quebec politics for decades.

He promised no referendums on Quebec sovereignty for a 10-year period, during which his party would set to work fixing the province's economic woes.

As the campaign wore on, polls suggested it was winning over disaffected Liberal voters. Prominent anglophone media outlets even threw their support behind the party.

But the Coalition was ultimately unable to translate that goodwill into seats in the legislature. While it managed to earn 27 per cent of the vote, that only amounted to victory in 19 out of 125 ridings.

Still, that is more than double what it started with and enough to earn it official party status. With a minority Parti Quebecois government, it could play a strategic role in legislative votes.

"Tonight's results demonstrate that the Coalition Avenir Quebec is here to stay," Legault told supporters in his riding just east of Montreal.

"Quebec's political landscape will no longer be the same from now on. We are witnessing today the birth of a new political force in Quebec."

The Coalition leader sketched out two issues where his party would be willing to work with the PQ: fighting corruption and fixing problems in the province's health-care system.

But Legault also warned the PQ that it would be putting its minority government under "close surveillance."

He did not, however, disguise his disappointment at the results. Pointing out that the Liberals earned 49 seats with 31 per cent of the vote, Legault said the final tally might seem "unfair" to some."

"It's happened often in Quebec's history," he said. "But you have to play by the rules."

One of the party's star candidates acknowledged that her campaign was challenged by a lack of organizational resources.

"We still ran into the issue of people not knowing the Coalition, but it was much better at the end of the campaign," said Maud Cohen, the outgoing head of Quebec's order of engineers and a candidate in a riding north of Montreal.

Another candidate said it was difficult to counter the Liberal lock on the federalist vote, which it has been able to count on for decades.

"The challenges I faced on the ground were just reflex votes, and votes out of fear," said Paola Hawa, a CAQ candidate in the Montreal riding of Jacques Cartier, which the Liberals won with a crushing majority.

"The Liberals did an excellent job of putting fear into people."

At campaign headquarters in Legault's riding, only occasional cheers erupted from what was otherwise a subdued crowd.

But they did have a few things to cheers about.

Star candidate Jacques Duchesneau, a former Montreal police chief, managed to win his riding just north of Montreal.

Legault also won in his own riding of L'Assomption.

It was Duchesneau's surprise candidacy that electrified the early days of the Coalition's campaign. But as the party rose in the polls, Duchesneau and the Coalition came under increased attack. Their popularity remained flat in the latest surveys.

During the campaign, Legault's opponents targeted his alleged penchant for offering up grandiose plans with few details about how to achieve them.

Both the PQ and the Liberals used the same word to describe Legault and his election promises: "unreliable."

He faced particular scrutiny for his promise to make a doctor available to every family in the province within a year of taking power.

Several of Legault's proposals would also have been open to constitutional challenge, including his promise to abolish school boards and extend Quebec's language laws to companies operating under federal jurisdiction.

But Legault brushed aside critics who accused him of being unrealistic.

"It is possible within the next 12 months to give every Quebecer a family doctor," he said in Drummondville, Que., during one of the new party's few rallies of the campaign.

"You only need one thing: be determined and have confidence in yourself."

Legault is a wealthy co-founder of Air Transat and an accountant by training.