Quebec has re-elected François Legault’s conservative nationalist government in a landslide victory after a bitter campaign that saw his party vow to limit immigration, preserve the French language and extract more powers from Ottawa.
The Coalition Avenir Québec was on the way to winning 89 seats out of 125, giving it a larger majority than the 74 it had clinched four years ago. Since then, Mr. Legault has made his mark on the province with aggressive legislation covering language, religious symbols and public health.
Speaking to a screaming theatre full of supporters in Quebec City, Mr. Legault struck a conciliatory tone after an often nasty race that featured heated anti-immigrant rhetoric. Speaking in English, he vowed to be the “Premier of all Quebeckers.”
“When I say that Quebeckers form a great nation I mean all Quebeckers, from all regions, of all ages, of all origins,” said Mr. Legault.
The CAQ’s relative weakness in Montreal, where it only had a toehold in one east-end riding out of a total of 27, underlined the gap between its identity-driven policies and the more diverse voters in the province’s largest city. During the campaign, Mr. Legault had to atone for speaking in the same breath about immigration and extremists.
In addition, he had to distance himself from his immigration minister, who falsely claimed that newcomers aren’t working or speaking French. But soon after, Mr. Legault himself declared that it would be “suicidal” to raise immigration levels because of their impact on the French language.
Support for the three opposition parties already in the legislature shrank from the 2018 election, while the emerging provincial Conservatives were not leading in a single riding. The results confirmed predictions that a fractured electoral landscape and Mr. Legault’s populist approach would hand the CAQ a stranglehold on provincial politics.
The four opposition parties ended with similar popular support, ranging between 13 and 15 per cent. However, because of the first-past-the-post electoral system, the Liberals led in 23 ridings while the Conservatives will end up empty-handed.
Monday night’s result further revealed the declining relevance of the independence movement, as both the federalist Liberals (down from 31 seats) and the sovereigntist Parti Québécois (only three seats, down from 10) won historically few seats, after dominating provincial politics for half a century with a running debate about Quebec’s place within Canada.
A former PQ cabinet minister and disillusioned separatist, Mr. Legault founded the CAQ in 2011 to put the sovereignty question on the back-burner and has vowed never to hold a referendum as Premier. His party focuses on defending Quebec identity within the federation.
The Liberals, under leader Dominique Anglade, maintained their status as Official Opposition by winning strongholds in the Montreal area, where anglophone and immigrant voters have long provided a solid base for the party.
Historically, the Liberals had been disadvantaged by having its support concentrated in fewer ridings but in this election it helped the party hold to its seats despite winning about 14 per cent of the votes.
The PQ fared worse than expected after a solid campaign by leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, a young, Oxford-educated lawyer who made headlines by vowing not to pledge allegiance to King Charles III and promising to lower immigration thresholds even further than the CAQ. Mr. St-Pierre Plamondon was elected in his own riding but the party ended up with its lowest popular support and number of seats.
Opposition to Mr. Legault was further splintered by the presence of left- and right-wing parties on the electoral map. Québec Solidaire’s Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois is a charismatic former student leader who made his name during protests against tuition hikes in 2012. His party, which had 10 seats, was again leading in 10 ridings this time, largely in big cities and college towns, by promising to dramatically cut greenhouse-gas emissions and raise taxes on the wealthy.
Nearly non-existent for decades, the Conservative Party of Quebec won more than 10 per cent of the popular vote under the leadership of former talk-radio host Éric Duhaime but did not win any seats. In a concession speech to supporters, Mr. Duhaime complained of being the victim of “democratic distortion,“ in apparent reference to the gap between his party’s score in the popular vote and the seat column.
While in opposition, Mr. Legault had pledged to change the electoral process “so that every vote counts.” However, once in office, his government let Bill 39, which introduced mixed-member proportional representation, die on the standing orders. He then contended that only “a few intellectuals” cared about his unfulfilled promise.
As it transpired, by sticking to the current voting system rather than proportional representation, he clinched 70 per cent of the seats with roughly 41 per cent of the popular support.
Several opposition leaders called for electoral reform in their speeches to supporters on Monday night.
“Rarely in our history have we seen such a disproportion between the popular will and the resulting seats … something is wrong with our system,” Mr. St-Pierre Plamondon said in his concession speech.
Mr. Nadeau-Dubois alluded to the same issue in a tweet after his speech, alluding to Mr. Legault’s decision not to deliver on a promise to amend the voting system. “This election should have been the first where each vote counts. But a calculation was made, a pledge was broken,” the tweet said.
For the near future, as Mr. Legault reminded Quebeckers just two days ago before the vote, he plans by December to deliver $400 to $600 cheques to those earning $100,000 and less, in a bid to counter inflation.
For the longer run, as a nationalist leader with no appetite to hold a referendum, he has a shopping list of demands for Quebec to accrue more powers within Canada. He wants more control over immigration. He has asked for increased health transfers with no strings attached.
His foes said his campaign discourse mirrored the way he ran his first mandate, with a propensity for pushing policies with little empirical basis – for example ordering curfews during the pandemic lockdowns, limiting immigration levels despite labour shortages, and touting the Quebec City Third Link commuter tunnel project without supporting studies.
Mr. Legault won big but he didn’t win with grace. Belying the avuncular image he projected when the pandemic began, he was divisive and defensive during the election campaign. In reaction to the rise of the Conservatives, he played to the traditionalist francophone electorate in outlying regions.
He brushed off concerns about the costly Third Link tunnel by accusing Montrealers of lacking respect for people in Quebec City. He had to apologize for the dismissive way he spoke about the late Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman who was a victim of racist abuse in hospital.
By failing to win 12 seats or 20 per cent of ballots – if early results held – the PQ and Québec Solidaire fall short of qualifying as parliamentary groups, which grants research budgets and speaking time during debates and in committees. In the previous legislature, the parties agreed to grant official status to the PQ and Québec Solidaire, because they each nearly had 20 per cent of the popular vote. This time, neither party came close.
ERIC ANDREW-GEE AND TU THANH HA
The Globe and Mail, October 3, 2022