Bonaventure (Quebec) 2011
A provincial by-election in the constituency of Bonaventure was held in Quebec on December 5, 2011. The riding had fallen vacant following the resignation of Deputy Premier and Liberal MNA Nathalie Normandeau, who had held the seat since 1998.
Bonaventure is located on the south shore of the Gaspé Peninsula, covering a string small towns bordering New Brunswick in the west or separated from New Brunswick by the Chaleur Bay. Bonaventure is significantly poorer than the province as a whole and its unemployment rate was a full 18% in 2006. Most politically significant is the presence of a sizable Anglophone minority, about 15% of the population, spread out in small villages along the coast or further west. The Anglophone population explains part of the riding’s long Liberal history. With the exception of five legislatures, the riding has been Liberal since 1890. Between 1956 and 1994, the riding was the stronghold of Liberal cabinet minister Gérard D. Lévesque. His resignation in 1994 prompted a by-election won by the PQ’s Marcel Landry, who was reelected months later in the general election but defeated four years later by Normandeau. She was reelected easily in all elections since, winning 64% in 2008. The riding had voted against independence in 1995, with 51.6% non.
Quebec is the hot place to be in Canadian politics right now. Jean Charest’s Liberal government, in power since 2003, is breaking unpopularity records with some 8 in 10 voters disapproving of the government. The provincial Liberals have been crippled by unpopular decisions but more importantly by a string of corruption, bribery, graft and illicit party financing scandals. Quebec’s construction industry is ridden with corruption and collusion with the mafia, well implanted in the province’s construction industry. The construction corruption and the PLQ’s corruption are all tied up, explaining why it took Charest months before finally resigning himself to call for an inquiry commission into the construction industry. The Liberals, who won 42% in 2008, sit at roughly 22% support in polls these days.
In most cases, such unpopularity would play into the hands of any opposition party, no matter how awful it is. The nationalist PQ has not had that luck. It too is in deep trouble and embroiled in factional crisis. The leadership of Pauline Marois finds itself attacked on two angles: the hardline nationalists claim that Marois is placing sovereignty on the backburner and is an indecisive leader, while moderates and lite nationalists claim that the PQ’s continued insistence on sovereignty is out of touch with the reality which they claim does not favour immediate sovereignty. In June, four sitting PQ MNAs including Pierre Curzi and former PQ Premier Jacques Parizeau’s wife Lisette Lapointe. Others have since been expelled, meaning that there are seven ex-PQ MNAs now sitting as independents.
The uncertainty over Quebec’s political future is only heightened by a new wildcard: former PQ cabinet minister François Legault’s new party, the Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec or CAQ. The CAQ, ideologically centrist or centre-right, places sovereignty far behind and claims to be some sort of post-sovereignist party breaking the old federalist/sovereignist divide of Quebec politics. The CAQ sits at roughly 33-35% support in polls, while the PLQ and PQ roughly tied at 20-22% each. The scene could become even more confusing if ex-PQ MNA Jean-Martin Aussant’s hardline sovereignist Option nationale (ON) party develops a following.
The CAQ’s appeal is not ideological, rather the appeal comes from Quebec riding a wave of change for change’s sake. At this point, disillusion with the PLQ’s corruption and PQ’s chaos is so high that voters will choose anything, left right or centre. A Leger poll from earlier this month had asked CAQ voters why they supported the CAQ: 9% said it was because of its ideas, 6% because of Legault and 3% because of its school boards position. But 32% said they backed it because of a “desire for change”, 19% because they were fed up of other parties and 17% because of its novelty.
Back to Bonaventure now. The PLQ always had an edge in the contest, but the PQ made the contest personal for Marois. She campaigned heavily for the PQ’s candidate, Sylvain Roy. It was a test for Marois’ legitimacy as leader of the party and a contest to determine whether she hangs on a bit or if she is forced out even more quickly. But there was a missing element in the Bonaventure puzzle: the CAQ. Registered only weeks ago, the CAQ claims it lacks organization and funding to compete in the by-election. Its absence has been criticized, with Marois saying that by his absence, Legault is only backing the Liberals while the Liberals have basically called Legault a wet chicken. I point out two reasons for the CAQ’s absence: firstly, it is true that it lacks any organization and would not have won, thus it did not want to suffer a defeat which would rain on the parade; second, if it had run it would still have pulled in 15-20% and likely have given the PQ a result below 29%. From one point of view, running and killing the PQ could be seen as in the CAQ’s interests, but it actually isn’t. Such a scenario would have been the nail in Marois’ coffin, and sped up the perhaps inevitable process of her bowing out in favour of Gilles Duceppe, who despite suffering an historical blow in May federally, would win a large majority as PQ leader. Which isn’t in Legault’s interest, given that he certainly isn’t running for leader of the opposition.
The results were:
Damien Arsenault (PLQ) 49.46% (-14.77%)
Sylvain Roy (PQ) 37.22% (+8.16%)
Patricia Chartier (QS) 8.92% (+5.72%)
Georges Painchaud (ADQ) 2.29% (-1.23%)
Jean Cloutier (Green) 1.29% (+1.29%)
Martin Zibeau (Ind) 0.82% (+0.82%)
The Liberal victory was as expected, and though its result is pretty decent for a toxic governing party, it has still lost nearly 15 percentage points from a result which – it is true – was inflated by a personal vote in 2008. That the PLQ had always been expected to win means that this result won’t provide the PLQ with any momentum booster. The result is not great for the Liberals, but it certainly isn’t that bad considering the party’s state of terminal decline.
The PQ won 37.2%, up 8 percentage points since 2008. In a race which Marois had made personal and in doing had made it into a key test for her leadership, she lives to fight another day. The PQ’s strong performance is what she has styled a “moral victory” and it will likely allow her to cement her leadership of the party for a little while. But it is doubtful that this result will boost her party’s actual standing overall. In such, the PQ’s strong showing could be considered a little victory for the CAQ. The strong result keeps Marois’ shaky leadership on life support, but will do little to right a ship which is clearly sinking or about to hit an iceberg. Which is what the CAQ wants and needs.
QS did well, with nearly 9% of the vote and a result up 5.7% since the last election, in a region where QS is generally very weak. Clearly QS is benefiting from the PQ’s state of chaos. Of the established parties, it is the one which is in the best shape. The same doesn’t go for the ADQ, which will be the first victim of the CAQ’s rise. There is ideological proximity between the two, but beyond that the ADQ could count on a rather strong base of support in a CAQ-less scenario – mostly similar ‘wind of change’/’PLQ/PQ sucks’ type of support. All that is gone with the CAQ, which reduces the ADQ to a rump of 6-8% support. From my point of view, the ADQ’s weak result in this CAQ-less race (although this is hardly ADQ stronghold territory) shows quite well that the CAQ’s rise isn’t indicative of any right-wing shift. There is talk of a CAQ-ADQ merger, but the ADQ’s poor result in this by-election hardly gives its leader Gérard Deltell a strong bargaining card in those talks with CAQ. In fact, it risks turning a simple merger in a takeover of the ADQ by the CAQ.
Interesting times in Quebec politics…