When Pauline Marois dissolved her minority government of only 18 months and launched a new election campaign in Quebec just four weeks ago, the vote was hers to lose.
It appears she may have done so.
Barring a significant shift in voting intentions in the final hours of the campaign, or a serious lapse by the polls, the Parti Québécois will lose Monday and be replaced by Philippe Couillard's Liberals. If that occurs, the result would be only the most recent case of a political party losing an election they had every right to expect to win.
But unlike the last such example, when Christy Clark's B.C. Liberals overcame a 20-point deficit to win re-election in May, 2013, the upset will not have taken place because of the efforts of the underdog. Instead, in Quebec, it seems Couillard will be winning by default.
Rarely have we seen such a disorganized and chaotic campaign as the one waged by Marois and the PQ. Things started out relatively well, with the PQ enjoying a wide lead among francophones thanks, in part, to the party's determination to push through the controversial but popular secular charter.
The recruitment of media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau appeared to be, according to most observers (including this one), the last piece of the puzzle that would solidify the PQ's lead and secure it victory. He bolstered the PQ's economic credibility. That such a wealthy and powerful person would bother to run for public office in a support role was a real vote of confidence in the PQ and the premier.
It all went downhill from there, but not necessarily for the reasons some thought it might at the time.
It was not even Péladeau’s fault either. But if someone who was on the political right and no friend to organized labour (traditionally, a significant supporter of the PQ) could be a prominent member of the government, it suggested he could only sacrifice those political views in the quest for the common goal that unified the PQ: independence.
At a stroke (or, rather, a fist-pump), the campaign that Marois wanted to wage on the economy and the charter was suddenly about a potential referendum.
Couillard had already been banging on about a referendum from the start, though it seemed to be nothing more than the usual campaign tactics of Liberal leaders past. But as focus turned towards a third referendum after Péladeau's messiah-like arrival, Marois did nothing to douse those fires by refusing to rule out holding a referendum in her next mandate.
Worse, Marois fueled those fires by foolishly answering the questions of journalists asking how borders and the Canadian dollar would be handled in a sovereign Quebec, rather than waving them off and sticking to her core message.
From that point, the PQ campaign began to unravel. An event was held in which a PQ minister questioned if students from outside of Quebec were trying to steal the vote, based on some irregularities subsequently dismissed by the electoral authority.
With the campaign now centred around the question of a referendum, François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec was further shunted aside after already being squeezed out on the charter debate, and his party lost support to the Liberals.
Couillard did well enough to secure his position in the first debate. He stumbled in the second, but it was Legault who took advantage. With Marois no longer looking like a winner as her own polling numbers softened, the CAQ started to make gains at the expense of the PQ.
Couillard stuck to his simplistic campaign strategy of making the vote a choice between "jobs or a referendum", while the PQ desperately tried to regain the momentum.
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There was a bizarre event in which 89-year-old Janette Bertrand, a former television star who supports the charter, sounded off on immigration.
Then Marois announced tax cuts would occur when the government reaches a surplus, a rather significant policy proposal that had not been mentioned before nor included in the PQ’s last budget.
But the Liberals have done little to win this campaign themselves.
Couillard has been steady enough, but is far from a stellar campaigner. He has struggled to handle questions related to integrity and language. And after the harsh rejection handed to Jean Charest and the Liberals just 18 months ago, it is difficult to believe Quebecers have come to forgive the party so quickly.
Instead, Couillard’s party is likely to win on Monday because it is the best vehicle to block the PQ.
A poll by Ipsos Reid for CTV News conducted earlier this week found that 39 per cent of Liberal voters are casting a ballot for the party primarily to prevent another referendum. Another 10 per cent are voting Liberal to stop the PQ's charter.
Just 22 per cent said they were voting Liberal for jobs and a better economy.
All signs pointed to the PQ being able to win when the campaign began. The party was leading in the polls, and particularly among the demographics that would give it victory.
Couillard had stumbled in the previous months, chiefly on the question of the charter, and was looking like a weak leader. Francophones who had voted for the CAQ in 2012 were flocking to the PQ.
But a misunderstanding of the concerns and priorities of Quebecers, and an inability to rebound once the campaign was knocked off balance, looks likely to have cost Marois and the PQ the election they could have won.
Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers every week. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.
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