Quebec provincial by-elections 2012

Provincial elections were held in two constituencies in Quebec (Canada) on June 11, 2012. These by-elections filled two seats – Argenteuil and LaFontaine – left vacant by the resignation of these respective MNAs.

Quebecois provincial politics remain as uncertain as ever. The provincial Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest, in office since 2003 and not due at the polls until (officially) late next year, remains as unpopular as ever, with over 70% disapproving of the government’s performance. The governing Liberals continue to be hurt by a string of corruption, bribery, graft and illicit party financing scandals. The provincial Liberals are very unpopular, but the opposition PQ has not really proven to be

However, since February, the province and the Charest government have been rocked by a massive student strike which protests a 75% increase in tuition fees for post-secondary institutions spread out over the next five years. Quebec currently has the lowest tuition fees of all Canadian provinces, but student associations found the tuition fee increase unacceptable. Neither side have been able (or willing, really) to come to an agreement or even move past meeting each other, meaning that the student movement has turned into a generalized political and social crisis, which the government is unable to deal with. In May, the government adopted a controversial law – Bill 78 – which restricts freedom of assembly and protest without prior police approval – with the aim of breaking up the student movement which has, at times, degenerated into violence.

The political impacts of this movement are surprisingly hard to measure. Voters are generally split (along partisan lines) on the issue, though a narrow plurality usually side with the government over the students. This might explain why the PLQ has regained a narrow but still weak lead over the PQ in recent opinion polls. The PQ leadership generally, more or less ambiguously, backs the student movement; while the small far-left Québec solidaire (QS) party fully supports the student movement – its sole MNA, Amir Khadir, and his daughter, were arrested by police for participating in demonstrations. QS, if polls are to be believed, has moved up to a strong 8-10% range in voting intentions.

When I last talked about Quebec politics in December last year, the fad was the CAQ – the new political party led by François Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister. The CAQ – Coalition Avenir Québec (they seem to hate prepositions) – has since then merged with the weak centre-right ADQ, which provided the CAQ with a parliamentary caucus. Legault is a former péquiste but a big part of the CAQ’s appeal is its claim that it lays beyond the sovereignist-federalist divide which has defined politics in Quebec since 1970. The appetite for independence is not very strong in Quebec, so the CAQ’s novel message of being a post-sovereignist centrist (or centre-right) party allowed it to ride a wave of support late last year, with December proving to be the CAQ’s peak with over 35% support in polls and a comfortable first place showing. However, the CAQ’s surge was built on nothing, other than a major thirst for change for change’s sake (given the PLQ’s unpopularity and the PQ’s uninspiring state of perpetual chaos). Legault has offered little in the way of consistent policy proposals, and those who backed the CAQ in December did so only because it represented change and a new third way. The CAQ’s predictable collapse, however, came sooner than expected. By January the CAQ’s numbers started falling, and since April has stabilized at a bit over 20% support, roughly what the ADQ was pulling before it disappeared below the waves.

The result of the CAQ’s rise-and-fall was a second coming for the PQ, which had a terrible year in 2011, hurt by internal feuds, bickering, divisions, chaos and an uninspiring leader, Pauline Marois. However, Marois and the PQ have managed to re-appear as a credible alternative to the governing Liberals. Marois still isn’t going to break popularity records any time soon and the PQ’s support, while seemingly solid, is largely unenthusiastic support by voters eager for change, at any cost.

The riding of Argenteuil fell vacant after the Liberal incumbent and former cabinet minister, David Whissell, resigned his seat, unofficially preferring to focus on his parallel business career – he is a major shareholder in an asphalt company and was in a position of conflict of interest as a cabinet minister and government MNA. Whissell held the seat since a 1998 by-election, and won reelection in 2008 with 49.6% of the vote. This seat has been held by the Liberal Party since 1966, and had never elected a PQ member. Between 1979 and 1994, this riding’s MNA was Claude Ryan, a one time leader of the PLQ.

Argenteuil is in the Laurentides region and is about halfway between Gatineau and Montreal, on the north shore of the Ottawa River but expanding into high-growth exurban territory around Saint-Colomban and Lachute and upwards to Morin-Heights, an affluent ski resort in the Laurentians. The region has traditionally had a large Anglophone community, which still accounts for 16% of the population. This is a traditional Liberal stronghold, although races can be close. The NO won only very narrowly here in the 1995 referendum, with 50.3%, and the 1998 election was very close in this riding. Since 2003, however, the Liberals have maintained the upper hand. Whissell won 53% in 2003 and 49.6% in 2008, while in 2007 he won with 37.6% against 29.7% for the ADQ. The Liberals usually poll best in rural English communities in the western parts of the riding, as well as the ski resort of Morin-Heights, while the PQ is dominant in exurban Francophone Saint-Colomban (where the ADQ was strong too).

The PLQ nominated Lise Proulx, the PQ nominated Roland Richer while the CAQ got themselves a star candidate – Mario Laframboise, a former Bloc MP in Ottawa for the region until he was handily defeated by a young Dipper in the 2011 federal election. This election, alongside LaFontaine, was the CAQ’s first electoral foray, so a strong showing by the CAQ was almost imperative for the party, which since the new year has found itself struggling more than it probably ever expected. The Green leader, Claude Sabourin, who has run here since 2003, ran again. The by-election saw the first electoral outings of three new parties: Jean-Martin Aussant’s hardcore nationalist Option nationale (ON) party, the new Conservative Party (PCQ) led by former federal Tory MP Luc Harvey and the centre-right Autonomist Team (EA). The PLQ was thought to have a fairly significant edge in this riding, though both the PQ and CAQ put significant efforts into this contest.

Roland Richer (PQ) 36.16% (+2.54%)
Lise Proulx (PLQ) 33.4% (-16.18%)
Mario Laframboise (CAQ) 21.4% (+10.16%)
Claude Sabourin (Green) 2.99% (-0.49%)
Yvan Zanetti (QS) 2.7% (+0.61%)
Patrick Sabourin (ON) 1.34%
Jean Lecavalier (PCQ) 1.05%
Georges Lapointe (Ind) 0.83%
Gérald Nicolas (EA) 0.14%

The Montreal riding of LaFontaine was vacant since May after Tony Tomassi, the independent (former Liberal) MNA for the seat was compelled to resign after a long-running corruption case against him. In 2010, he was forced out of his cabinet position (family minister) and the PLQ caucus after a scandal surrounding daycare licenses erupted. Tomassi had held this seat in eastern Montreal since 2003.

LaFontaine covers most of the neighborhood of Rivière-des-Prairies and Pointe-aux-Prairies in northeastern Montreal. Rivière-des-Prairies and Pointe-aux-Prairies are two largely suburban and fairly well-off middle-class areas on Montreal Island. However, the Rivière-des-Prairies neighborhood is marked by a strong Italian community. Overall, 47.5% of the riding’s population had an non-official language – usually Italian but with significant Hispanic and Creole minorities – as their mother tongue (while only 9.3% claimed English as their mother tongue, 26% spoke English at home). 26% of the riding’s population is made up of visible minorities, most of them Haitian. This demographic makeup makes this riding a Liberal stronghold. In 2008, Tomassi won 69.8% of the vote against only 19% for the PQ. He won 69.5% in 2003 and still managed 62.5% in 2007. The riding was more marginal in the past, when it included more Francophone and péquiste areas in Pointe-aux-Trembles. Indeed, under significantly different boundaries, the old riding of Lafontaine elected a PQ member as early as 1970. The Liberals won in 1985 and since the 1988 and 2001 redistrictings removed the remnants of Pointe-aux-Trembles, the Liberals have turned this riding into a core Liberal stronghold.

The PLQ nominated Marc Tanguay, the president of the party. The PQ and CAQ nominated sacrificial lambs, as did all other smaller parties including the new ON, PCQ and EA.

Marc Tanguay (PLQ) 53.32% (-16.44%)
Frédéric St-Jean (PQ) 17% (-2.11%)
Domenico Cavaliere (CAQ) 15.58% (+9.08%)
Sébastien Rivard (QS) 5.09% (+3.18%)
Gaëtan Bérard (Green) 3.02% (+0.29%)
Paolo Zambito (ON) 1.64%
Patrice Raza (PCQ) 1.26%
Marc-André Beauchesne (Ind) 1.02%
Renaud Blais (PN) 0.86%
Guy Boivin (EA) 0.41%

Turnout was 42.4% in Argenteuil but only 25.6% in LaFontaine.

The Liberals were the main losers of June 11. Their fairly startling defeat in Argenteuil has proven a major loss for the Liberals, both in political terms and in more general media/spin/image impacts. The PLQ’s line that by-elections don’t matter doesn’t really cut it for them: by-elections aren’t the most important things in the world, but idle voters and the media do make something of by-election results. Similarly, the argument that low turnout leads to such “fluke” results might be true from a psephological standpoint, but the media and the idle voter know that by-election turnout is always ghastly but still play along anyway.

The Liberals lost a full 16% in both constituencies, generally in line with their loses in other provincial by-elections since troubles began: -14.8% in Bonaventure (Liberal hold, December 2011), -17.9% in Kamouraska-Témiscouata (PQ gain, November 2010) and -10.4% in Saint-Laurent (Liberal hold, September 2010). If a -16% swing against the Liberals was applied throughout the province, the Liberals would win only 26% of the vote (which is less than what polls currently give them: 30-32%). The PLQ has been unable to gain any political support out of the student movement, when some could have thought that the image of a “tough” government against “unruly mobs” could gain it a bit of support. However, views on the issue are divided along partisan lines: those most likely to appreciate the government’s policies are already PLQ (or CAQ) voters. At 26% support, the PLQ would be hitting rock-bottom – that is, likely third place with Francophone voters but maintaining only a solid 60-70% core vote with the rock-ribbed federalist Anglo and allophone communities.

The PQ’s victory in Argenteuil has kicked up the party’s moods once again, and it is a significant victory for the PQ in a constituency which had never elected a PQ member. However, instead of undue triumphalism, the PQ should read the other (hidden) message these results carry for the PQ: it is largely stagnating a bit above or a bit below its 2008 result (35% – which I guess is still ‘good’ when the PLQ could be at 26% in the province…). These results are some nice proof for the old fact that the PQ’s success and potential victory in the next provincial election will be due far more to the PLQ’s state of ruin and utter discredit than to any genuine support for the PQ’s message or for its hapless leader. I guess a win is a win, but in the long term, a win better be a real win rather than a win-by-default. The PQ appears to have retrieved its 2008 support, likely gaining back the preferences of some fledgling Francophone voters who had toyed with the CAQ fad while it lasted but who have since returned to the PQ as the least worst of uninspiring options.

The CAQ’s first electoral foray was marked by two defeats, including a rather bad one in Argenteuil. The CAQ had downplayed expectations, but it was still hoping for a second place finish (a la ADQ 2007) in Argenteuil, especially with the recruitment of a star candidate like former MP Mario Laframboise. In LaFontaine, the CAQ’s result is not all that bad (it is fairly amusing that the difference between the CAQ’s results in these two very different constituencies is that small…). It appears as if the CAQ’s ‘remaining’ vote has come heavily at the expense of the PLQ rather than the PQ. This would give credence to theory that while the CAQ fished on both sides of the pond during its surge, its decline was more pronounced with more traditionally péquiste voters, while retaining a good base with disillusioned or unhappy former Liberals. The CAQ can also be assumed to have kept a good part of the former ADQ electorate.

The CAQ’s result was about 9.5% better than the ADQ’s results in these two constituencies in 2008. Surprisingly, if the CAQ performed 9.5% better than the ADQ did in 2008 at the provincial level, it would be standing at 26% support (thus tied with PLQ for second) – quite a bit higher than the 20-22% support it garners in polls. However, such results are hardly encouraging for the CAQ, which has rapidly transformed into a boring third party which nobody cares about.

QS improved its vote in both ridings, including by a significant 3.2% in LaFontaine. Most of this additional support likely comes from the PQ. But given that polls show that QS could be as high as 8-10% nationally, and seems to have benefited a bit from the student movement, these results are a bit underwhelming for them. Of course, these are hardly the type of places where I would expect a student movement-generated QS mini-surge to be strongest (a rural constituency with no unis on one hand, a largely allophone suburban constituency on the other hand…), and perhaps that turnout played a trick on them.

Its results were still much better than those won by the irrelevant others: the Green leader did fairly terribly, the ON was (as expected) a flop (like all other hardcore nationalist PQ splinters have been) and the new Conservative Party went nowhere. Of course, neither of these two new parties have a real base: the PQ eats up potential ON voters, the PLQ and CAQ eat up any potential PCQ voters.

Jean Charest has until 2013 to call an election, but he could be calling an election in the province as soon as this fall or this winter. The PLQ is continuing to rush into the wall at full speed, and there is little which it can do about it. The Liberal government has lost a good deal of its political legitimacy as a government (and this is a very big deal) with the student strikes, and it could be tempted to end its own misery sooner rather than later.

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Posted on June 13, 2012, in By-elections, Canada, Quebec. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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