Taking advantage of good polling and the inability to pass legislation through the National Assembly, including the controversial secular charter, Pauline Marois has called an election to be held in Quebec on April 7.
It is hers to lose.
The polls suggest the Parti Québécois holds a narrow advantage over the opposition Liberals under Philippe Couillard, but is leading by more than 20 points among francophone Quebecers. That alone should be enough to propel the PQ from minority to majority government.
The party will be focusing on making gains in the suburbs around the island of Montreal and in the rural regions of Quebec. These were the parts of the province that swung towards François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec in 2012, and the PQ's stance on identity issues is partly designed to get those voters back.
With the CAQ polling at just 15 per cent in the latest survey, the strategy appears to be paying dividends.
In 2012, the province was almost split three-ways. The PQ took 32 per cent of the vote, the Liberals took 31 per cent, and the CAQ grabbed 27 per cent. But the charter has shoved the CAQ aside as debate has polarized between those for (the PQ) and against (the Liberals). Polls suggest that CAQ voters are evenly split on the issue.
Legault is accordingly desperate to turn the debate more towards his pet issue of the economy, but as the question increasingly becomes one of whether or not to give the PQ a majority government, he's likely to find himself pushed to the sidelines even more.
For his party, the election is about survival. The CAQ appeared to be en route for a disappointing result in 2012 before Legault was able to announce the candidacy under the CAQ banner of corruption fighter Jacques Duchesneau. This turned the campaign on its head and made the CAQ a serious alternative to the Liberals and PQ. But Duchesneau is not running for re-election.
Unless Legault can somehow make a similar splash, a good deal of his MNAs (including himself) may find themselves out of a job the day after the election.
The Liberals, however, are more likely to hold their own. Their support currently stands above their vote share of 2012. Though some of their incumbents may fall to a surging PQ, new candidates should be able to take their place as CAQ seats fall to the Liberals.
But Couillard is not looking to sit on the opposition benches for four more years. In order to put his party in a position to form government, he will have to make major inroads among francophone voters.
Three-quarters of non-francophones intend to vote Liberal but only about one in five French-speakers say they'll cast their vote in that direction. It is among this demographic that the election will be decided, and currently they are leaning towards the PQ.
Worse, Legault is tied with Couillard among francophones on who would make the best premier, suggesting the Liberal leader is struggling at a personal level among these voters.
The stage is thus set, with the PQ and Liberals fighting over the sympathy of francophones and Legault desperately trying to get back in the race.
If the CAQ can be further marginalized, the Liberals stand to benefit. But unless a large proportion of French-speaking Quebecers move their vote over to Couillard and the Liberals, Marois will secure the majority government she is asking for.
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. You can pre-order his eBook, "Tapping into the Pulse", a retrospective of polling in 2013, here
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