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09/26/2018 09:09 EDT | Updated 09/26/2018 09:10 EDT

Why Quebec Election Voter Shifts Are Defying Expert Opinion

According to recent polls, some voters in Quebec are moving from change to the right to change on the left.

The first poll of the Quebec campaign, released by Leger on August 28, put the right-wing Coalition Avenir Quebec at 37 per cent support, well ahead of the centrist incumbent Parti Liberal de Quebec at 32 per cent. The separatist Parti Quebecois stood at 19 per cent. The leftist Quebec Solidaire held just eight per cent support.

And the CAQ's seat distribution under first-past-the-post helped even more. Among the about 80 per cent Francophone Quebecers, the CAQ stood at 42 per cent, with the PLQ at just 21 per cent. The PLQ vote was heavily concentrated among non-Francophones in the few seats of Montreal's west end and island centre.

After nearly 15 years of continuous Liberal government, Francois Legault was profiting from a desire for change and his focus on the impact of immigration on his version of Quebec identity.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Coalition Avenir Quebec's Francois Legault responds to questions following the third Quebec elections leaders debate in Montreal, Sept. 20, 2018.

But after three televised debates and a series of fumbles, Legault's big lead has unravelled. And the unwind has been on an unexpected issue with an unexpected benefactor.

It's long been treated as a truism in English-speaking Canada's political elite that Quebecers' nationalism is built on a racist core. And certainly within Quebec, there have been constant provocations on AM talk radio linking hijabs, burkas and the need to defend Quebec's culture. Feminism has even been rallied to the cause. The far-right Soldiers of Odin and La Meute are a force. That's all true.

But while clickbait journalism and shock radio may feed and promote this narrative, when the broader Quebec population gets engaged, it seems to end up a loser.

In the 2014 Quebec election, the Parti Quebecois, campaigning on identity politics and a proposed charter of values, lost an early narrow lead and crashed to just 25 per cent support – though the cause of their defeat may have been more driven by the infamous fist-pump of anti-union media baron and PQ candidate Pierre Karl Peladeau.

In the 2015 federal election, both the Harper Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois campaigned hard on right-wing identity politics. But the Liberals and NDP placed first and second, with 36 per cent and 24 per cent support, respectively.

And in the 2018 provincial election, it has exactly been the CAQ's anti-immigration positions that have tripped them up. Adding a Quebec twist to Conservative leadership aspirant Kellie Leitch's values test, Legault pledged that immigrants to Quebec who didn't pass a French test after three years would be expelled. The attack came when Legault couldn't explain how the Quebec government had the authority for such action.

Tuesday's IPSOS poll shows the result. The CAQ is down to 30 per cent across Quebec and has fallen to 36 per cent support among Francophone voters. Perhaps relatedly, the poll showed the top issue for 68 per cent of Quebecers was heath care. Immigration was only the top issue to 16 per cent.

Current CAQ support levels may be enough to win more seats in the 125-seat legislature than any other party. But it's far from clear Legault has the support to win an outright majority.

But neither the PLQ, at 30 per cent, or the PQ, at 20 per cent, have gained much from the CAQ unwind. Indeed, Coullaird's Liberals hold just 17 per cent support among Francophones and look destined for a wipe-out outside of Montreal. The PQ is heading for it's worst result ever. Even in the first election it contested, in 1970, the PQ took 23 per cent support.

Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Liberal leader Philippe Couillard, PQ leader Jean-François Lisée, CAQ leader François Legault and Quebec Solidaire leader Manon Massé , right, shake hands before their English debate on Sept. 17, 2018.

Expert opinion can't explain it, but the major beneficiary of the unwind of the right-wing CAQ has been the left-wing Quebec Solidaire, which now holds 18 per cent support.

For highly politicized experts trained in political theory, a shift from right to left makes no sense. But for anyone who watched the recent Ontario election, it's perfectly reasonable.

After 15 years of Ontario Liberals – their scandal, their cuts, their privatizations – Ontario voters wanted change. Similar to what Quebec polls show now, about three-quarters of Ontarians said it was time to throw the bums out – and put in the other guys. In Ontario, the other guys are the Progressive Conservatives. In Quebec, it's the CAQ.

But then a large slice of voters didn't like the kind of change offered by the other guys. In Ontario, a second electoral shift happened when Andrea Horwath's NDP began to gain at the expense of both the Liberals and PCs.

In Quebec, the same second shift has happened, with some voters moving from change to the right to change on the left. Not liking what they saw in the CAQ, and after Quebec Solidaire spokesperson Manon Masse reached a broader audience in TV debates, a slice of change voters saw a better change option with the QS. One that would protect health care, not cut it.

In Ontario, the second shift briefly put the NDP in a competition for government – then was beaten back. The PCs surrounded leader Doug Ford with more reassuring Conservatives, who it was suggested would hold back his worse impulses. The Liberals claimed the NDP would cause "endless strikes" and professed to not be able to pick a favourite between Andrea Horwath and a person who now will not denounced the purveyor of white supremacy with whom he was pictured last weekend. A third shift tilted against Horwath. Ford won.

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But that final combined counter-attack and resulting third shift is unlikely in Quebec. Because they are still far back and not at the edge of a win, the QS is unlikely to face a concerted attack. With the election a week away, the right-left shift process faces no great barrier and further QS gains are possible before Monday's vote.

And in that result may lie a final problem. If the process continues and the CAQ does not win an outright majority, it will need alliances. For each of the QS, PQ and PLQ, overt alliance with the CAQ poses potential existential threats. But if the incumbent PLQ resigns and the CAQ tests the confidence of the National Assembly, perhaps there will be one or more party willing to let Quebec voters experience the CAQ in government – on a short leash.

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