Monthly Archives: September 2012

Netherlands 2012

Legislative elections were held in the Netherlands on September 12, 2012. All 150 seats of the lower house of Dutch Parliament, the Tweede Kamer (House of Representatives/Second Chamber) were up for reelection. I didn’t write a preview for this election, but if you want some quick stuff about Dutch politics since 1918, I would think that my preview post for the 2010 elections is still worth something.

The members of the Dutch lower house are elected by proportional representation, with an effective real threshold of 0.67% of the votes (roughly 50,000 votes) required for representation. After the initial seats are allocated, the remainder seats are allocated using the d’Hondt method of largest averages. This system favours slightly the larger parties, hence list combinations (lijstencombinatie) are formed by the combination of several party lists where they form a single slate which compete for the remaining seats. Afterwards, the seats are allocated to the parties within the list combination using the largest remainder method.

In the Netherlands, voters vote for a candidate on a party list rather than the list as a whole. However, oftentimes, a vast majority of voters cast their vote for the party’s lijsttrekker (top candidate) even though they may vote for any candidate lower on the party list. Preferential votes are only taken into account once the seats have been allocated, and a candidate can be elected ahead of candidates placed higher on the party list if he/she received one quarter of the threshold (0.1675% of total valid votes) on preference votes.

Government formation in the Netherlands takes a long time, but it does not take long for some cabinets to fall. This election is the fourth early election in a row – all elections since 2002 have been held before the government came to its natural end. Following the 2010 elections, the liberal VVD led by Mark Rutte formed a cabinet with the participation of the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the external support of the far-right Freedom Party (PVV). Geert Wilders’ PVV propped up Rutte’s cabinet in exchange from stricter immigration policy, similar to what happened in Denmark between 2001 and 2011 when the far-right offered external support to a liberal-conservative coalition government.

Wilders decided to pull the plug on the government in April 2012, unwilling to accept a new round of austerity policies aimed at reducing the Dutch deficit from about 4% of GDP to the EU deficit limit of 3%. Wilders claimed that he was opposed to new budget cuts which would have a negative impact on social programs, notably old age security.

The Netherlands has one of the lowest electoral thresholds in the world. This has made the formation of strong, stable governments increasingly difficult, and has allowed for the proliferation of all types of political parties. Given that any party which can manage about three-quarters of a percentage can realistically hope to win representation in the lower house, there is little which keeps dissidents or minority factions within an existing political party from creating their own political party.

The Dutch electorate used to be one of the more predictable electorates in western Europe until the 1960s, but since then it has turned into one of the most unpredictable and unstable electorates in Europe. Until the 1960s, the Netherlands was a very polarized – or rather pillarized – society built up along four pillars – the Catholic, the Protestant, the “socialist” and the neutral or “liberal” pillars. Each pillar had its own church (or lack thereof), its own newspapers, its own schools, its own unions, its own social activities and, of course, its own political party(ies). The Catholic Party, successively known as the AB, RKSP and KVP, received nearly 80-90% of the votes in the heavily Catholic provinces of Limburg and North Brabant. Protestants split their votes between the ARP (which represented the Reformed Churches), the CHU (which represented the Dutch Reformed Church) and the so-called testimonial parties which represented small, traditionalist, Orthodox (Calvinist) churches. The SDAP, and after the war the Labour Party (PvdA) and the Communists (CPN) represented the socialist pillar. The pillarized society was completed by liberal parties, most significantly the liberal-conservative VVD in the post-war era.

Pillarization declined in the 1960s, victim of the secularization common to all Western European societies. Between 1918 and 1963, the three major confessional parties (KVP, ARP, CHU) polled roughly 50% of the votes altogether (and were the mainstays of every government), but by the 1972 election these three parties only accounted for 31% of the votes. In 1977, to confront their decline, the Catholic and Protestant parties (ARP and CHU) came together to form the non-denominational Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA). In these years, Dutch politics were also marked by the growth of new political actors, representing emerging ideologies. There was the left-liberal and reformist Democrats 66 (D66), the left-wing Christian PPR, the eco-socialist and pacifist PSP, a destalinized CPN and smaller movements on the far-right and the far-left (including a small Maoist-oriented Socialist Party, SP).

Since then, the tendency has been one of electoral instability. To be fair, a lot of this electoral instability takes place within the ideological blocs (left and right) rather than between the larger ideological blocs, but since the turn of the century, the list of parties which have had their rise and fall is long. Most will remember the Pim Fortuyn List (LPF) in 2002-2003, which won 17% in 2002 on the heels of Fortuyn’s assassination, but collapsed to 5.7% in 2003. Most recently, in 2010, the CDA collapsed to fourth place with 15.5% of the vote, its worst result in its history, while Geert Wilders’ far-right PVV surged to 15.5% and 24 seats. In 2006, the Socialist Party (SP) placed a very strong third with 16.6% and 25 seats but in 2010 it fell back to only 15 seats and 9.8%. D66, finally, has a famously fluid electorate, which has allowed the party to win as much as 15.5% (1994) and as little as 2% (2006).

Opinion polls in the Netherlands since January 2012 (source:

This election was another textbook example of the Dutch electorate’s instability. Going into the election, the VVD was running neck-and-neck with the SP, with the PvdA trailing quite badly. This was attributed to the PvdA’s lackluster performance in opposition since 2010 and the popularity of SP leader Emile Roemer. The SP ran a markedly left-wing anti-austerity and Eurosceptic platform, it opposed raising the retirement age, opposed the Rutte cabinet’s stringent austerity measures and said that it would net feel obliged to abide by the EU’s 3% deficit limit. If you are interested about each party’s platform, the Votematch test in English matches you up with a party and allows you to explore party positions on major issues.

However, just as everybody was preparing for an election which would have placed the SP on nearly equal footing with the VVD, the SP started collapsing rapidly as the PvdA surged back. The last-minute reversal was attributed to a very strong debate performance from the PvdA’s new leader, Diederik Samsom, and negative press about the SP (an independent economic analysis agency projected major job loses based on the SP’s platform).

Turnout was 74.3%, down from 75.4% in 2010. The results were:

VVD 26.58% (+6.09%) winning 41 seats (+10)
PvdA 24.81% (+5.17%) winning 38 seats (+8)
PVV 10.11% (-5.34%) winning 15 seats (-9)
SP 9.66% (-0.16%) winning 15 seats (nc)
CDA 8.52% (-5.09%) winning 13 seats (-8)
D66 8.00% (+1.05%) winning 12 seats (+2)
CU 3.13% (-0.11%) winning 5 seats (nc)
GL 2.34% (-4.33%) winning 4 seats (-6)
SGP 2.1% (+0.36%) winning 3 seats (+1)
PvdD 1.93% (+0.63%) winning 2 seats (nc)
50PLUS 1.88% (+1.88%) winning 2 seats (+2)
Others 0.95% (+0.24%) winning 0 seats (nc)

Google Politics (again) has the best map for visualizing results at the municipal level.

The election ended as a very closely fought contest between the liberal VVD and the PvdA, with both parties achieving very high levels of support. The VVD itself, with 26.6% of the vote and 41 seats, won its best result in its history, while the PvdA has won its best result since the 2003 election (27.3%). This particularly heavy polarization around the two major parties is rather impressive when you consider that the PvdA surged into contention only in the final stretch of the campaign.

Winners and Losers

Mark Rutte and the VVD are the clear winners of the election. As noted, 26.6% and 41 seats is the best result ever won by the VVD or in fact, any liberal party in the Netherlands since the introduction of proportional representation in 1918. Rutte’s government is probably not phenomenally popular, but Mark Rutte is a fairly popular leader who is rather well liked by the wider electorate. He apparently gives off a “fresh” and straight-talking vibe, which is a contrast with his CDA predecessor Jan-Peter Balkenende. Even if his government took some unpopular decisions and was embroiled in some controversies, Rutte was able to successfully deflect almost all major controversies which could have hurt him.

While no trend is set in stone in Dutch politics, the VVD has emerged as the main right-wing party, taking the spot which the CDA had usually occupied. This shift has paralleled a significant ideological shift in the VVD, part of which has likely been the result of the rise of the far-right in Dutch politics. The VVD has adopted increasingly conservative positions on immigration, law and order or crime; while retaining its traditional economically liberal views on taxes, government spending and so forth. I guess comparisons could be made with Denmark, where the mainstream right-wing party – the Liberals – hold conservative views on immigration but liberal views on economic policy. However, the comparisons stop there; the Danish Liberals have usually been the major party on the right, and its original base is predominantly rural rather than urban.

The VVD has been able to break out of its traditional urban upper middle-class electorate and dig deep into the ranks of former CDA voters. I don’t have data, unfortunately, on vote transfers in this election, but I would logically suspect that the VVD’s gains this year came in large part on the back of the CDA’s loses. Indeed, the areas where the VVD gained the most since 2010 are primarily rural municipalities where the CDA had previously been dominant.

In the past, the VVD’s strongholds had been in the extensively urbanized Randstad region of Holland, where it polled best in wealthy upper middle-class suburban municipalities. This year, while the Randstad provided the VVD with its best results, the VVD won municipalities across the board, including in rural areas in the south and in the east where the CDA had found its last bastions of support in the 2010 election.

The VVD likely gained some voters from the PVV. Indeed, the municipality in which the VVD gained the most support from 2010 (Edam-Volendam) is also the municipality where the PVV lost the most support (but turnout also dropped considerably there…). Though I have not crunched the numbers, I don’t see a whole lot of evidence for the idea that there was a significant numbers of voters who switched from the PVV to the VVD. While 56% of PVV voters in the final poll by Maurice de Hond indicated a preference for Rutte over Samsom for Prime Minister, this is much less than with CDA voters (81% preferred Rutte over Samsom). There are grounds for some PVV voters to have switched to the VVD in this election. Some right-wing voters who had backed Wilders in 2010 primarily because of immigration could have backed Rutte’s VVD this year without too much unease, considering how far to the right Rutte (pushed by the PVV) had pushed Dutch immigration policy since 2010. However, it is hard to see voters who backed the PVV in 2010 as a populist/protest option switch allegiances in large number to the VVD.

The PvdA clearly had a very successful election, especially if you consider how badly the campaign had started for them. A month ago, if somebody had said that the PvdA would end up with 38 seats and come within a hair of first place, most would have laughed them off. Since the 2010 election, already an underwhelming result for the party, the PvdA had performed relatively poorly in the opposition and bled many supporters to the SP. Until the last week of August, the PvdA was projected to win less than 20 seats and finish a distant third behind the VVD and the SP. Polls showed that a significant share of voters who had backed the PvdA in the 2010 election were planning to vote for the SP, but Diederik Samsom’s very strong performance in a debate really turned the tide around and by the first few days of September, the PvdA was narrowly ahead of the SP and its support started soaring past even its 2010 results (30 seats) and was tied with (or narrowly trailing) the VVD in the final polls, both parties predicted to win more or less 35-37 seats each. It is quite remarkable that Samsom managed to convince voters who were on the verge of abandoning the PvdA for the SP throughout most of the campaign to come back home.

Samsom and the PvdA clearly had the momentum going into the election, and he benefited from the “curtain bonus” – that last-minute switch in voter allegiance which is commonplace in Dutch elections – at the expense of the SP. Voter allegiance is soft in the Netherlands, and there is much fluidity on the left. Such sudden reversals are not unknown (but they are quite impressive nonetheless) in the Netherlands, and it is no surprise that much of the SP’s additional support was (very) soft support from unhappy PvdA voters.

In the final week, the election really shifted into a polarized one-on-one battle between Rutte (VVD) and Samsom (PvdA). The PvdA (and the VVD)’s apparent “curtain bonus” is likely the result of strategic voting on both the left and the right. On the left, many voters may have liked Roemer and the SP and considered him, but ultimately there certainly was heavy strategic voting for the PvdA in the hope that Samsom would place first, making him the frontrunner to become Prime Minister. After all, around 75% of SP voters indicated their preference for Samsom over Rutte as PM in Maurice de Hond’s last poll.

After a paltry debate performance by Roemer and a very strong performance by Samsom, many left-wingers likely judged Samsom to be more prime-ministerial and on top of the issues than Roemer. After all, the SP’s “soft” gains came from 2010 PvdA voters who were disappointed with the way the party, led by Job Cohen, had performed in opposition. After Samsom proved himself, many of them naturally flowed back.

With the “prime ministerial” nature (rather than purely legislative) of the election in the final week and the extent of strategic voting on both sides, I can’t help but draw comparisons to the 1977 election which had seen a similarly polarized “prime ministerial” contest between the PvdA’s Joop den Uyl and the CDA’s Dries van Agt. In 1977, the PvdA ran under the slogan “Vote for Prime Minister” and the result was a consolidation of left-wing votes behind Joop den Uyl’s party, at the expense of smaller left-wing parties like the CPN, PPR or PSP. Of course, there was no similar consolidation of the right-of-centre vote in 1977.

The PVV, after a very successful election in 2010, tumbled down the stairs in 2012 (though 10% is still a fairly significant base of support). Since 2006, Wilders’ political ascension was described by many as irresistible. He played the other parties off against themselves and gained the support of a significant number of voters with his fiery anti-Islam, anti-immigration populist rhetoric. The 2010 election, after which the PVV managed to get the government to implement some of the tough immigration laws it wanted (in return for supporting the government’s austerity measures), was perhaps the peak of Wilders’ power.

While the PVV did not participate in the Rutte cabinet and only propped it up from the outside (even if Wilders tried to play the role of the opponent at the same time), being close to an incumbent government is rarely a good idea for any far-right party in any country (especially under the present economic conditions). It is much easier for the far-right to grow while it is in opposition, and can freely oppose any government policy.

The far-right’s appeal is built on the rejection of other parties, their ideologies, their style, their policies and their record. Naturally, once a far-right party becomes closely associated with a government, it risks becoming tainted by any unpopular decisions that government might have taken and its own voters might perceive it as guilty by association.

The PVV has shifted towards some fairly ‘left-wing’ positions on certain economic issues such as pensions, wages and so forth. However, at the same time, Wilders’ party supported a cabinet which implemented pretty stringent austerity measures. The far-right, the PVV no different, always has a strong attraction for lower-income voters who feel as if they have been “forgotten” by the major parties and see in the far-right a way to protest their perceived exclusion from society. I would assume, though without data to back me up, that the PVV likely lost a lot of those voters this year.

Other factors also played against Geert Wilders this year. Firstly, in the run up to the elections, there was much public infighting within the party. One of its MPs, Hero Brinkman, left the party in March 2012. Some other members left the party, some citing Wilders’ autocratic leadership of the party. Though Brinkman’s splitoff party, the “Democratic Political Turning Point” (I have no clue what’s that supposed to mean!) won only 0.1% (7.6k votes) of the vote, public infighting is never beneficial for any party.

Immigration was a major issue in the 2010 election, something which obviously played to Wilders’ advantage. This year, immigration did not feature as prominently in the election, rather the economy was the overarching issue. Wilders attempted to reinvent himself and move outside of the far-right’s traditional reliance on its niche issue, immigration. He ran a very anti-European, anti-Euro campaign, presenting himself as the defender of Dutch sovereignty against Brussels. He called on the Netherlands to ditch the euro and readopt its old currency, the guilder.

When he pulled the plug on the government in April, Wilders was convinced that he would have the momentum on his side and that voters would flock to his party in the context of the Euro crisis. However, for the first time in a long time, Wilders apparently miscalculated. To some of his original voters, he had lost his credibility by backing a pro-austerity government. Other voters grew tired of Wilders’ roughshod style and his incessant aggressiveness towards other party leaders. In this election, Dutch voters expressed not only a ‘pro-European’ choice but also a vote for political stability.

Many voters disapproved of Wilders’ decision to pull on the plug on the government, in addition to his other antics. Voters wanted stability, they don’t want another election and they don’t really like politicians like Wilders who topple government for partisan reasons.

The PVV lost 5.3% support compared to the 2010 election. It lost the most, by far, (-9%) in Limburg province, Wilders’ home turf and the PVV’s strongest province (it won 17.7% in Limburg this year, a far cry from the impressive 26.7% the party got there in 2010). In Limburg, his decline likely helped the SP a bit. However, in general, it seems as if a good share of those 2010 PVV voters who abandoned Wilders this year shifted towards the ranks of non-voters, with smaller amounts shifting to the VVD or the SP.

People should not be writing Geert Wilders’ obituary just yet. He remains a very strong politician with a remarkable ability to hurt other parties, and this defeat may only be a setback for the party. The PVV will be in opposition no matter what during the next legislature, and being in opposition is, of course, the most lucrative spot for a far-right party like the PVV. Just because Wilders lost 9 seats doesn’t mean that he’s politically dead, nor does it mean that the ideas which he represents in the Dutch political discourse have been soundly rejected. The electorate’s general mood in the Netherlands remains pretty conservative on immigration and integration issues, and regardless of what happens to Wilders and the PVV from this point forward, he will have left his mark on Dutch politics and policy for quite some time.

The SP had a very disappointing election, victim of the legendary volatility of the Dutch electorate. I don’t need to restate that the SP was on track to winning an historic result and place itself in contention for first place, until the train totally came off the rails and it lost everything it had gained back to the PvdA. Furthermore, at the last moment, the SP lost another chunk of support. Final polls had predicted that it would win 20 seats, still a modest improvement over its 2010 results (15 seats), but it managed to win only 15 seats and remain at its 2010 levels. We can attribute this last-minute shift away from the SP, likely to the PvdA, to strategic/tactical voting for Samsom and Labour.

I’m not sure if SP leader Emile Roemer deserves blame for this very underwhelming result. Sure, he’s responsible and his debate performance was apparently sub-par, but I feel as if he was the inadvertent victim of the Dutch electorate’s legendary volatility and of the fact that most of the SP’s impressive gains earlier in 2012 was apparently very “soft” in nature. Perhaps voters on the left did prefer pro-European options like the PvdA, maybe they did prefer a more “prime ministerial” leader like Samsom over an untested populist leader like Roemer. I’m not Dutch and can’t judge the campaigns, but my opinion is that Roemer and the SP didn’t necessarily lead a bad campaign, just that it turned out that the PvdA ran a (much) better campaign which was closer to the political desires of left-wing voters.

Nevertheless, it was a very disappointing result for the SP in the end. It was really on the edge of making a fairly historic breakthrough, but everything seemed to come off the rails for SP at the last moment. When the rain started falling on the SP, it really poured. Its gains – all its gains – evaporated at a dizzying pace.

The SP held up better in its traditional southern strongholds, where the party grew its first roots in the 1980s and 1990s, rather than in the left-wing areas of the north where the SP’s strength is more recent. The party won only one municipality this year, Boxmeer in North Brabant, which is Emile Roemer’s hometown. It placed a close third with 20% in Oss, a working-class town in North Brabant which was the SP’s first stronghold (by the 1980s). In working-class regions of Limburg and North Brabant, the SP benefited from the traditional weakness of the other major left-wing parties (PvdA, CPN) in these two heavily Catholic provinces which voted monolithically for the KVP until the 1970s.

The CDA had an horrible election. With a puny 8.5% of the votes, the party won its worst result in its history. From an historical perspective, this is really something which is quite exceptional. Consider, for a moment, what the CDA was. It was the merger of three parties which had been the mainstay of basically every government in Dutch history since 1918, it is a party which represents (represented?) the Christian democratic tradition which had been the dominant force of the “right” in the Netherlands. The CDA wasn’t the natural governing party because Dutch politics don’t work like that and the CDA had some pretty terrible results prior to 2010 already (1998), but the CDA is/was very much the natural party of government. Since the CDA’s foundation in 1977, the only time it was not in government was between 1994 and 2002 with the Purple coalitions of Wim Kok. Prior to that, every government since 1918 had included at least one of the CDA’s three ‘mother parties’.

The CDA’s original collapse in the last election was because its incumbent PM, Balkenende, had really served his time and voters had grown tired of him and his inability to keep his governments together for very long. Following the 2010 defeat and Balkenende’s resignation as leader, the CDA remained in government, but it lacked a permanent leader until earlier this year (its de facto leader and Deputy PM in Rutte’s government, Maxime Verhagen, was extremely unpopular). It’s certainly not very good for a junior coalition partner to lack a permanent leader for two years.

The CDA proved to be an utter disaster as a junior coalition partner, with the appearance that it was getting run over by the VVD and the PVV. The CDA keep insisting throughout the Rutte government that it was, fundamentally, a “centrist” party. Unsurprisingly, it’s a tough sell to explain a centrist party’s participation in a government which most have judged to have been one of the most right-wing in recent Dutch history, one which was propped by the far-right.

Lacking a strong leader and devoid of any particularly attractive ideas, the CDA was utterly crushed at the polls. Since 2010, the CDA really had the appearance of an ideologically ambiguous party which was particularly eager to remain in government, at any possible price, including sacrificing what it claimed to have stood for. Many CDA voters voted for the VVD this year. Senior coalition partners in the Netherlands usually receive a “Prime Minister bonus” when they seek reelection, provided they are not unpopular.

The CDA’s electoral geography shows how far the party has fallen. It won only two rural municipalities in Overijssel this year. The party has dropped down into irrelevance in the bulk of the urbanized Randstad region of Holland, it won only 2.2% in Amsterdam (less than the animals’ party!) and won low single digits across all major urban areas. But it has dropped off to single digits in the North Brabant and Limburg, the old monolithic strongholds of the Catholic Party. In 2010, it held on to a rump of support, largely rural and predominantly from the east (Overijssel in particular). This year, it lost that last remaining base of support, largely to the VVD.

What the CDA desperately needs is a really long stay in opposition, where it can try to reinvent itself, ask itself who it as a party and where it must go from this point forward. As it stands right now, the VVD has really supplanted it as the major right-of-centre force in Dutch politics, and while Dutch voters are very volatile, I admittedly have a hard time seeing the CDA roar back to its former glory in the next election unless it has some fabulous leadership material which I don’t know about.

D66, on the other hand, had another good election. The party has a famous tendency to see its support evaporate once it enters government (see, for example, the 2006 election for D66 after it was in government between 2003 and 2006). After the 2006 election, D66 and its leader, Alexander Pechtold, gained a solid reputation as one of the vocal opponents of Geert Wilders.

I’m not really sure where D66’s minor gains this year came from. It improved most in places where it usually strong, gaining, for example, over 3% in Amsterdam and Utrecht. Are these GL voters unhappy with all the infighting within their party? Are these a few VVD voters who disapproved of the right-wing direction their party had taken? D66’s electorate is remarkably volatile and the party generally attracts highly educated, middle-class social-liberal voters without a strong partisan affiliation.

The GroenLinks (GreenLeft) had a very bad election, its worst result since the GL’s creation in 1989. GL’s significant loses can be attributed to internal infighting and the party’s unsuccessful ideological transitions. In recent months and weeks, the GL was wracked by internal wranglings, with dissident MPs denouncing the leadership of Jolande Sap or retiring MPs revealing how group communication had broken down within the party. It is never a good idea for any party to let its dirty laundry hang outside.

Since 2002-2003, the party has attempted to transform itself ideologically. Since the 1980s, all major Dutch parties (CDA, VVD, D66, PvdA, SP) have shifted to the right to an extent or another, and the GL has been no exception. Early on, the party leadership worked to marginalize the ‘radicals’ – pacifists, eco-socialists or activist types. Under the leadership of Femke Halsema and now under Jolande Sap, GL has tried to present itself as a pragmatic, responsible centre-left party. The party supported the wars in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, already a significant shift for a party whose ancestors included staunch pacifists (from the PSP). In 2011, the party’s decision to back the government’s extension of the Dutch police training mission in Afghanistan generated much controversy within the party. On economic issues, the party also progressively shifted to the right, for example supporting measures which would make it easier for employers to fire employees. Its goal was to profile itself as a responsible and respectable centre-left party which backed “innovative” economic policy.

Halsema had defined herself and the party as “left-liberal” or social-liberal, which was outrageous for some of the party’s core activists, who resented a shift from the “radical left” to the centre-left. It must be remembered that the GL’s ideological shift rightwards is a long-term process, and it was initially met with some success. What seems to have destroyed the party was its decision, after the PVV pulled the plug on the government, to support the centre-right government’s emergency budget (the Spring Agreement). The Spring Agreement, in which all signatory parties agreed that the country should meet the EU’s 3% deficit limit at all costs, was supported by the VVD/CDA, the CU, D66 and the GL. The GreenLeft didn’t come out empty-handed, but it did accept major cuts in entitlements and social services.

In seeking to reinvent itself, the GL has seemingly forgotten who it was to begin with. It may have a responsible governance-oriented leadership, but it lacks clear political coherence and has a demotivated membership and a leaky electorate. Basically, in joining the Spring Agreement and shifting to the right, the party’s leadership severely miscalculated and seemed to have forgotten who its electorate was. The party’s electorate is fundamentally left-wing, but the party’s leadership basically preferred to transform GL into a second D66. D66 already successfully serves the role of a centre-left, social-liberal and ‘responsible’ party, there is no room for a second D66.

The party’s electorate was either demotivated or disillusioned by GL, especially after the Spring Agreement. Most of GL’s sizable loses likely flowed to the PvdA, maybe a few to D66, the SP and the animals’ party.

The Christian testimonial parties remained, roughly, at their levels. The SGP did manage to win a third seat, the first time since 1998, and its best popular vote result since 1973; something which is particularly amusing but also interesting, though I guess that people in that small gene pool reproduce really well (it likely also regained votes that it had lost to the PVV in 2010). The CU lost a bit, but it held its 5 seats. These two uniquely Dutch parties represent conservative, traditionalist factions of the Dutch Protestant (or Reformed) church, the so-called bevindelijk gereformeerd.

The SGP remains the most traditionalist (and openly theocratic) of the two parties, it is famous for shutting down its website on Sundays and for banning women from the party until quite recently. During the campaign, SGP leader Kees van der Staaij echoed Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape”, stating that he believes that women who get raped seldom become pregnant. The party has a small but extremely tight-knit, solid electorate concentrated in the Netherlands’ Bible Belt, a conservative religious region where church attendance remains high. The former island of Urk is a noted stronghold of this ultra-conservative Protestant tradition, the SGP won 51% in Urk this year with the CU pulling in 18%.

The CU is a more ‘open’ party, which accepts participating in governments, and has attempted to open itself to conservative Catholic voters as well. It was formed by the merger of two parties, one of which represented a 1944 split in the Reformed Churches and which was closely tied to that church, and another party which represented orthodox Protestants who rejected the merger of the ARP and CHU within the CDA. The CU has very right-wing positions on moral (‘social’) issues and is Eurosceptic, but it is more left-wing on economic issues. It too is predominantly concentrated in the Bible Belt region.

The Animals’ Party (PvdD) held its two seats and came very close to winning a third seat, with 1.9% of the vote, it has won its best result yet. The party’s additional support this year likely came from particularly environmentalist left-wing GL supporters. Another party made its entrance into the Second Chamber, 50PLUS, a new centre-left pensioners’ party.

Government Formation

The VVD/CDA/(+PVV) coalition will not be continued, it no longer has a majority (only 69 out of the required 76 seats) and the PVV has announced that it will be in opposition regardless. There are relatively few options on the table, which means that the formation of the new government – probably still led by Mark Rutte – will probably not take as long as in 2010.

The option which almost all parties seem to accept is a small Purple government, similar to the Wim Kok cabinets between 1994 and 2002 which included the PvdA and the VVD (plus D66). Both of these parties on their own hold 79 seats, but they lack a majority in the Senate. The two parties will negotiate with each other first, and then they will invite other parties to join negotiations. There a few roadblocks on the way. The PvdA has shifted slightly to the left since the Kok Purple cabinets of the 1990s, while the VVD has shifted to the right since then. The two parties are pro-European but they have disagreements on economic issues (austerity) or healthcare (the VVD supports private options in healthcare). A small Purple government would probably not last for its full term, but both parties have some interest in working together in a relatively stable pro-European government.

Still, a small Purple government remains the top possibility. It could be extended to the CDA (which doesn’t seem to understand that they really, really need some time-out from governments!) and D66. During the Kok cabinets, D66 was seen as the glue which held the PvdA and VVD together. It seems interested in the possibility of participation in a VVD/PvdA cabinet, as does the CDA. VVD+PvdA+D66 would still lack a majority in the Senate, but VVD+PvdA+CDA or VVD+PvdA+D66+CDA would have senatorial majorities.

If negotiations between the VVD and the PvdA ultimately fall through, the PvdA has signaled interest in trying to work out something with the SP (a shift from the party’s attitudes in previous years, when it was very reticent of working with the SP), which rejects a VVD/PvdA cabinet but is interested in a centre-left government with the PvdA. A “red” coalition with only the PvdA and the SP would lack a majority, so it would need the participation of the CDA and D66. However, neither of these two centrist parties seem too keen on the idea of working with the SP.

It will be interesting to observe the effects of a new government, even with the same Prime Minister, on Dutch politics. Was the PVV’s big tumble a final defeat or only a setback along the way? Are the CDA’s days as one of the major parties in Dutch politics gone for good, or can the party roar back spectacularly? What is the next step for the SP after a very underwhelming election? Will D66’s possible participation in cabinet lead to the party getting hammered, as per tradition? Where will the GreenLeft go from here? So many questions, and so many answers which will be so interesting (like everything in Dutch politics!).

Ontario (and Manitoba) provincial by-elections 2012

By-elections were held in the provincial constituencies of Kitchener-Waterloo and Vaughan on September 6 in Ontario (Canada), following a by-election in the provincial constituency of Fort Whyte in Manitoba (Canada) on September 4.

Kitchener-Waterloo (Ontario)

Map of Kitchener-Waterloo (source: Elections Canada)

In the 2011 Ontarian provincial election, Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals were returned to power for a third straight term but they won a minority government with 53 seat, one short of the “magic” 54 seats needed to form a majority government (the speaker is a Liberal, giving the Liberals an effective 52 votes against 54 votes for the opposition).

Governing in a minority environment for the first time, the Liberals have been forced to work with the other parties. With a struggling economy and huge deficit, the government introduced an austerity-minded budget earlier this year which includes a two-year pay freeze for public sector employees, including teachers and doctors. The budget also included cuts in government spending and government services.

The opposition Progressive Conservatives (PCs), led by Tim Hudak, rejected the budget out of hand, claiming the Liberal budget did not do enough to curb “runaway spending” and debt. The New Democrats were more open to compromise, and in April the NDP agreed to prop up the government in return for the inclusion of a tax on high incomes proposed by the NDP. However, Ontario was almost thrust into a snap election in July when the NDP – unexpectedly backed by the PCs – started voting down key planks of the budget in June. McGuinty threatened to call an election until the NDP finally blinked and abstained from the final vote on the budget, allowing it to pass in late June.

The PC MPP for Kitchener-Waterloo, Elizabeth Witmer, resigned on April 27 following her appointment to head the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). Her resignation created a vacancy in the riding which she has held since 1990. Witmer was a fairly high-profile moderate “Red Tory” who served in Premiers Mike Harris and Ernie Eve’s cabinets. As a moderate and fairly consensual Tory, she built up a strong personal vote which allowed her to win reelection in her fairly swing-y riding in 2003, 2007 and 2011 despite the PCs losing at the provincial level.

Kitchener-Waterloo was created in 1996 and is composed of the northern parts of the city of Kitchener and the entirety of the city of Waterloo in southwestern (or midwestern) Ontario. Waterloo forms part of a larger urban conglomeration which includes the slightly larger cities of Kitchener and Cambridge.

Historically, Waterloo County had a large German population – the city of Kitchener was known as Berlin until World War I and was the centre of the German population in Ontario during the first decades of Confederation. According to the 2006 census, 27% of Kitchener-Waterloo’s population claimed German ancestry. Politically, this German influence in Waterloo County made Waterloo North a Liberal stronghold, at least at the federal level. The federal riding of Waterloo North was held by the Liberals between 1917 and 1958. With a few short exceptions, the provincial riding of Waterloo North was held by the Liberals between 1929 and 1990.

While Kitchener and Cambridge were historically major industrial centres, the city of Waterloo does not have a blue-collar industrial past. Today, Waterloo has developed a strong high-tech and knowledge-based economy. It is home to the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, but also high-tech giant Research in Motion (RIM), the developer of the Blackberry. The riding’s has a predominantly middle-class, white-collar professional population. Median household income is in the upper tier provincially and nationally and 29% of the population has a university education.

In the past two decades, the Liberals have had the upper hand in Kitchener-Waterloo. Federally, K-W was represented by Andrew Telegdi, a maverick-y Liberal, between 1993 and 2008. In the 2008 election, Telegdi was surprisingly defeated by Conservative Peter Braid by a tiny 17-vote margin (36.1% to 36%). The 2011 results in Kitchener-Waterloo were skewed by the fact that Telegdi ran a strong campaign which coalesced the anti-Tory vote around his name. Even if the May 2011 election was a disaster for the federal Liberal Party, Telegdi, who hadn’t stopped running since his 2008 defeat, managed to increase his vote share to 37.6% but Braid simultaneously increased his vote share to 40.9%.

Provincially, Witmer won by relatively tight but still quite comfortable margins in the past three elections. Her most decisive victory was in 2007, she took 40.8% against 31.2% for the Liberals and 17.5% for the NDP. In 2011, she won by a slightly tighter margin, 43.8% against 36% for the Liberals and 16.7% for the NDP.

The NDP represented the federal riding of Waterloo (which included the city of Waterloo but also surrounding areas) between 1964 and 1979 with Max Saltsman. Provincially, however, the last time the riding had a New Democrat MPP was in 1943, when the present-day NDP was known as the CCF. That being said, the riding in its current incarnation would likely have been won by the provincial NDP in the 1990 election.

The NDP has usually been confined to a range of 15-17% support in the riding in the past eight years. The Greens have a strong potential in the riding, they took 9.3% in the 2007 provincial election and 12.1% in the 2008 federal election. However, their vote fell to only 2.6% and 4.8% in the last provincial and federal elections respectively.

The Liberals are usually strongest in downtown Waterloo and around the University of Waterloo in the centre of the riding. The downtown part of Waterloo is a largely middle-class young professional, highly educated and relatively affluent area. Telegdi dominated there in the 2008 and 2011 federal elections, and the Greens usually placed strong seconds or thirds in most polls in downtown Waterloo in the 2008 federal election. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have been strong the outskirts of the riding – largely upper middle-class suburban neighborhoods, a mix of both older developments and newer subdivisions. Federally, it was strong Tory inroads in these neighborhoods which had previously been reliably Liberal (until 2006) which allowed them to defeat Telegdi in 2008 and again in 2011. At the provincial level, Witmer won these areas easily in 2011 and certainly in 2003 and 2007. The New Democrats have found their strongest support in more blue-collar and lower-income neighborhoods of north Kitchener which are included in the riding, along with a handful of polls around social housing projects or apartment blocks.

Given the riding’s swing-y nature, Witmer’s resignation got the provincial Liberals excited at the opportunity for a gain, which would have given them a working majority of sorts in the Legislative Assembly. However, the by-election came in a tough climate for the governing Liberals. According to polls, the Liberals are languishing in the 26-28% range, in third behind the NDP (at roughly 28-30%) and the PCs (36-38%). In the past few weeks, the Liberal government has crossed swords with teacher unions, who have fought against the government’s two-year pay freeze for provincial employees, including teachers.

The Liberals had a contested nomination fight in the riding, but eventually re-nominated Eric Davis, a lawyer and their 2011 candidates. The PCs nominated Tracey Weiler, a local businesswoman. The NDP nominated their strongest possible candidate, Catherine Fife, the chair of the local school board and the president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association. Fife had run for the NDP in the 2007 provincial election, running a strong campaign and placing a decent third with 17.5%.

This election turned out to be a close three-way battle in which all three parties invested lots of resources. The Liberals heavily targeted this riding in order to win a working majority, the NDP fancied its chances with a strong candidate and favourable provincial circumstances while the Tories needed to maintain their hold on this key swing seat.

Forum Research polled the riding thrice. Right when the seat became vacant, they saw the Liberals ahead. A few months later, they showed the PCs on top with a 4% edge over the NDP and the Liberals, who were tied at 30% apiece. Right before September 6, their last poll showed the NDP surging way ahead of both the Tories and the Liberals.

The results were as follows:

Catherine Fife (NDP) 39.84% (+23.17%)
Tracey Weiler (PC) 31.82% (-11.95%)
Eric Davis (Liberal) 24.05% (-11.99%)
Stacey Danckert (Green) 3.25% (+0.61%)
Allan Detweiler (Libertarian) 0.33%
David Driver (Freedom) 0.2% (-0.05%)
Elizabeth Rowley (Communist) 0.19%
Garnet Bruce (Ind) 0.17%
Kevin Clarke (People’s) 0.1%
John Turmel (Pauper) 0.05%

The result was a major upset, one of those memorable by-elections which will be (or ought to be) remembered down the road. The NDP, usually weak in this riding, came out of a distant third place to win by a large 8% margin, handing both the Tories and Liberals disastrous results.

The NDP upset in Kitchener-Waterloo is the result of a number of factors, some local and others more general. At the local level, Catherine Fife was undeniably a strong candidate and she ran a strong campaign. The provincial NDP organization invested tons of resources into the contest, NDP leader Andrea Horwath visited the riding numerous times over the past few months and Fife’s campaign received the enthusiastic and influential backing of the teachers’ unions, which are locked in a fight with the Liberal government over the government’s controversial two-year pay freeze. The union apparently bused down tons of volunteers to help out with Fife’s campaign.

Fife was further boosted by ‘national’ factors. Premier Dalton McGuinty is unpopular and voters were in no mood to give him a majority, but PC leader Tim Hudak hardly has a better image with the wider electorate. During the budget shenanigans, the PCs received negative media coverage, highlighting their steadfast opposition to the budget (and their refusal to work with the government), while their decision to back the NDP in voting down key planks of the budget was fairly hypocritical given that in doing so they went against parts of their own platform.

Hudak is also a fairly mediocre leader. He could easily have won the 2011 election, but the PC campaign derailed as Hudak allowed McGuinty to paint him as a radical. Hudak lacks the charisma or political talent of his federal counterpart, Stephen Harper. During the campaign, Hudak tried to downplay expectations for his party, saying that K-W was more of a “Witmer seat” than a “PC seat”, which is correct but which isn’t a very savvy thing for a party leader to say during a by-election campaign. Following the by-election, Hudak blamed the defeat on “union bosses”.

While both Hudak and McGuinty have terrible approval ratings, NDP leader Andrea Horwath has, by far, the strongest ratings of the three leaders.

K-W is not weak territory for the NDP, but it is not easy ground for them either. While the NDP’s base in K-W is likely larger than recent election results might indicate, K-W kind of fits the “too rich to vote NDP, too smart to vote Tory” mold (the phrase has been used since 2011 to describe residual pockets of Liberal strength, primarily federally). However, Kitchener-Waterloo and similar ridings are the kind of places which the NDP must win if they are to form government, both federally and provincially.

To win in a what is traditionally a really longshot riding for the NDP, Catherine Fife likely assembled a coalition of core NDP supporters in lower-income areas, left-leaning Liberals (middle-class young professionals, students) in neighborhoods such as downtown Waterloo and around the universities and certainly some moderate “Witmer Tories”. Fife might have been helped by local economic concerns about the future of Waterloo’s top employer, RIM, which has recorded major financial loses in recent months.

The result is an unmitigated disaster both for the PCs and the Liberals, perhaps more so for the Liberals. Tim Hudak has been placed under some pressure to step down following this embarrassing defeat for the PCs, and at any rate it is unlikely that the PCs will be as eager to force a snap election following this disaster. The Liberals clearly invested tons of energy, resources and manpower into this campaign and they presented this as their top chance to win a majority government, but voters resoundingly rejected the idea of giving McGuinty a working majority. While this isn’t quite the end of the road for the Liberal government, McGuinty and his government are in really dire straits. They have been hit by scandals, the budget has generally been unpopular and his fight with the teachers’ union doesn’t seem to be doing them any favours. A snap election anytime soon for the Liberals would certainly be tough for McGuinty, especially given that Horwath and the NDP would have momentum. The Liberals, after nearly 10 years in power, are really starting to be hit by voters’ fatigue.

Vaughan (Ontario)

Map of Vaughan (source: Elections Canada)

There was another by-election on the same day in Ontario, in the provincial riding of Vaughan. Liberal MPP Greg Sorbara resigned his seat on August 1.

The riding covers most of the municipality of Vaughan, one of the fastest-growing municipalities in Ontario located just outside Toronto. Vaughan is a very affluent suburban community – it has one of the highest household incomes in Canada. It has a fairly young population made up, in very large part, of middle-class families. On the 2006 census, Vaughan topped all Canadian federal constituencies on the percentage of houses which are owned (94.3%) and built within the last 20 years (80.5%). It also had the highest national percentage of married couples (87%) and second generation immigrants (37.3%).

Vaughan (especially the neighborhood of Woodbridge) is notable for its large Italian population. In the 2006 census, a full 54.4% of the riding’s population claimed Italian ancestry, and the riding had the highest Catholic population of all ridings in Ontario in 2001 at 77%. However, the riding’s character is changing somewhat. A quarter of the population are visible minorities, including a significant South Asian population (9.3% of the total population).

Politically, Vaughan has traditionally been a Liberal stronghold both at the provincial and federal level. However, since 2011, politics in Vaughan have been marked by a stark contrast between the federal and provincial levels. After longtime Liberal MP Maurizio Bevilacqua resigned his seat in 2010, former Toronto police chief Julian Fantino gained the seat for the federal Tories in a 2010 by-election. In May 2011, he was reelected with a huge majority (26.5%), painting the entire riding Conservative blue. At the provincial level, Greg Sorbara has held the seat since 2003. Sorbara, who served in the David Peterson and later the McGuinty governments had originally represented the Vaughan region between 1985 and 1995, when he was defeated by the PC’s Al Palladini. Sorbara staged a comeback in the 2003 election, taking back the seat with 56% of the vote. He took 61.9% in 2007 and won 53% in the 2011 election. At the provincial level, the riding is still solidly Liberal red.

The seat’s voting patterns are rather homogeneous. In 2011, Fantino basically swept the entire riding, with the Liberals barely holding on to some decent showings in Woodbridge and Maples. In the provincial election, Sorbara, in contrast, painted almost all of the polls in Vaughan Liberal red.

The Liberal candidate was Steven Del Duca, director of public affairs for the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario. The PC candidate was Tony Genco, the PC candidate in October 2011, who had previously run for the federal Liberals in the 2010 by-election and for the provincial Liberals in 1999. The NDP candidate was Paul Donofrio.

The results were:

Steven Del Duca (Liberal) 51.2% (-1.82%)
Tony Genco (PC) 33.39% (+2.15%)
Paul Donofrio (NDP) 11.32% (-0.01%)
Paula Conning (Green) 1.78% (+0.37%)
Paolo Fabrizio (Libertarian) 0.96% (-0.92%)
Bart Wysokinski (Family Coalition) 0.45%
Stephen Tonner (Ind) 0.37%
Erin Goodwin (Freedom) 0.28%
Phil Sarazen (People’s) 0.24%

In contrast to the disastrous Liberal rout in K-W, the Liberals held up very well in Vaughan, holding the seat by over 17 points and losing only 1.8% off their October 2011 vote. However, the Vaughan by-election was much lower on the radar for all parties (besides, maybe, the Liberals, who in the closing days saw Vaughan as a good opportunity to save face). Tony Genco is pretty much a terrible candidate, and it does not seem as if the PCs invested much resources into this contest.

Affluent Toronto suburbia is still very difficult ground for the NDP, and it ignored this by-election to focus all it had on Kitchener-Waterloo. Therefore, considering that this is a by-election in a constituency with zero NDP groundwork and that the NDP ignored this by-election, the NDP can certainly be very pleased that it held on to its 2011 vote share. However, maybe, just maybe, this indicates that K-W was a result influenced primarily by local circumstances and that there is not (yet?) a massive Orange Crush in the works at the provincial level.

The greater 905 region is must-win country for Tim Hudak (as it was for Harper) if he wants the Tories to win the next provincial election, but Vaughan itself is not a must-win constituency. It remains, despite Fantino’s popularity federally, a structurally Liberal riding which is, at best, a long-shot target for the PCs unless they get some star candidate and the Liberals have a crummy candidate.

The overall results of these two by-elections in Ontario is a major victory for the NDP and a defeat for both the Liberals and the PCs. While the Liberals can be pleased by their very strong resistance in Vaughan, the result in K-W is still an unmitigated disaster for them which they can difficultly spin. The PCs had a terrible showing in K-W and a very underwhelming, mediocre result in Vaughan, two results which will place Tim Hudak’s hold on the PC leadership in question, even if he himself shows no willingness to step aside.

Fort Whyte (Manitoba)

Location of Fort Whyte within the city Winnipeg (source: Manitoba Elections)

A provincial by-election in the constituency of Fort Whyte was held in Manitoba on September 4. Fort Whyte’s incumbent MLA since 2005, former provincial Progressive Conservative (PC) leader Hugh McFayden, stepped down from the PC leadership and resigned his seat earlier this year.

Fort Whyte is located in southwestern Winnipeg, covering the suburban neighborhoods of Linden Woods, Linden Ridge, Bridgwater Forest, Fort Whyte and Whyte Ridge. The seat was created in 1999 from parts of Fort Garry and St. Norbert, the result of strong population growth in suburban southwestern Winnipeg. The riding is made up quasi-exclusively of newer affluent upper middle-class suburbs of Winnipeg. The riding has the second highest average family income in the province and some 30% of the population hold university degrees, once again one of the highest in the province.

Fort Whyte has been a PC stronghold since its creation in 1999, and this part of Winnipeg has been represented by PC MLAs since at least 1958. Between 1999 and 2005, Fort Whyte was held by John Loewen, a moderate Red Tory who resigned in 2005 to run for the federal Liberals in the 2006 federal election. In a by-election he was succeeded by Hugh McFayden, who became the leader of the PCs and leader of the opposition in 2006. McFayden led the PCs into the 2007 and 2011 provincial elections, but both times the PCs were defeated by the NDP, which has been in power since 1999. Following his defeat in the 2011 election, in which the PCs failed to increase their representation, McFayden announced his resignation from the party leadership.

In the absence of any other candidates, former provincial cabinet minister and federal Conservative MP Brian Pallister was acclaimed as the new PC leader. Brian Pallister served in Gary Filmon’s provincial Conservative government as Minister of Government Services between 1995 and 1997, resigning to run in the 1997 federal election for the federal PCs. A “Blue Tory” within the federal PCs, Pallister ran for the PC leadership in 1998 on a right-wing platform aimed at appealing to Reform Party supporters, placing fourth on the first ballot. In 2000, he left the party to run for the Canadian Alliance in the 2000 federal election in the constituency of Portage-Lisgar. He held that seat until 2008, and was a fairly unremarkable Alliance and later Conservative backbencher.

Pallister was the PC candidate in Fort Whyte. The Liberal candidate was Bob Axworthy, who is apparently the brother of former federal foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy. The NDP candidate was Brandy Schmidt. The results were:

Brian Pallister (PC) 55.18% (-7.29%)
Bob Axworthy (Liberal) 31.56% (+23.64%)
Brandy Schmidt (NDP) 11.25% (-18.36%)
Donnie Benham (Green) 1.72%
Darrell Ackman (Ind) 0.29%

There isn’t much to say about this by-election, except that Pallister, as everybody expected, held a Tory fortress by a landslide and that the Liberals did really well. Pallister did considerably worse than McFayden in the 2011 election, though he still beats the 52% which McFayden won in the 2005 by-election and 2007 election. Pallister doesn’t strike me as a particularly wise choice for the PCs, given that the NDP probably don’t like anything better than running against a guy who served in the government they always love to criticize.

The Liberals did really well, winning their best result on record in the riding since its creation in 1999. In the 2011 election, the Liberal vote had taken a major hit in the riding compared to previous elections, when the Liberals had managed to pull in around 15-20% of the vote in Fort Whyte. McFayden seemingly gained a good part of the 2007 Liberal vote in his 2011 reelection bid in his seat. Some of this vote likely returned to the Liberal fold, but given that Axworthy – a starlet candidate given his last name – likely was the most visible anti-Tory candidate in the by-election and managed to coalesce most of the anti-Tory vote around his name. In this vein, I don’t know how to interpret the NDP’s pretty terrible result. Is this a bad sign for the Greg Selinger government, or is it, as I suspect, because the NDP really didn’t put any effort in this by-election?

The NDP has been in power for 13 years, since 1999. Since 2009, Manitoba has been governed by Premier Greg Selinger. In the 2011 election, the NDP won reelection with a huge majority – 37 seats against only 19 for the PCs and a lone Liberal holdout – but the popular vote was relatively narrow, the NDP winning over the PCs by only 2%. The PCs’ problem is that their votes are homogeneously concentrated in a handful of rock-ribbed conservative rural ridings, especially those German Mennonite rural areas south of Winnipeg where the PCs win with majorities well over 40-50%. In contrast, the PCs have found themselves nearly shut out of Winnipeg, taking only four seats in the city in the last two elections. If the PCs are to win the next election (after 16 years in power in 2015, the NDP might  be hitting voter fatigue), they will need to make some significant gains in urban Winnipeg, notably in more middle-class suburban ridings in the south of the city which have voted for Harper’s Conservatives by solid margins but narrowly reelected NDP incumbents in 2011. If they are not able to make some gains in Winnipeg, then they will confined to the opposition benches for another term. It is, of course, too early to say if Brian Pallister will the good leader to lead them to government, 16 years after Gary Filmon lost reelection in 1999.

Tired of Canada? The Netherlands votes on Wednesday, September 12.

Quebec 2012

Provincial general elections were held in Quebec on September 4, 2012. All 125 members of the provincial legislature, the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale), were up for reelection in single-member constituencies (often known as ridings in Canadian English, or comtés/circonscriptions in French). I covered Quebec’s history, political parties and this campaign in a preview post last week.

Premier Jean Charest and his Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) were seeking a fourth straight mandate from the voters, having been originally elected with a majority government in 2003 and reelected in 2007 with a minority and in 2008 with a majority. Charest was up against great odds, given that his approval rating was as low as 30% with his government had been battling very damaging accusations of corruption and collusion since 2009 and was struggling with a large student movement, which has been protesting the government’s proposed tuition fee hike since February.

Charest’s third term in 2008 was already a remarkable achievement, given that no Quebec Premier since the Quiet Revolution (1960) has won more than two straight terms in office. Jean Charest is a long-timer in politics – he was first elected in 1984 and has served in both federal and provincial politics, and he is one of the most skilled and talented politicians in contemporary Quebec politics. The running joke is that he is a cat with many lives, denoting his fantastic ability to bounce back when nobody expects it or to survive against the toughest odds. He is a very strong debater and a very effective orator. In the end, however, Charest’s shine might have worn off during his third term, in good part due to the lingering stench of corruption in his government. Despite the weaknesses and the very poor campaign of the opposition sovereigntist Parti québécois (PQ), the PLQ was unable to turn the tide during the campaign, which remained a close three-way contest with François Legault’s new centre-right Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ) throughout.

Léger’s last poll out (August 31) had the PQ at 33% against 28% for Legault’s CAQ and 27% for the PLQ, terrible numbers for both the PQ (which won 35% in the 2008 election – which they lost) and the Liberals (their previous all-time low had been 33% in 2007), but enough for a PQ minority or narrow majority. Two pollsters from English Canada, Forum and Ekos weighed in on September 3, and both pollsters showed a somewhat odd last minute bump for the PQ (up to 36%). Forum had the Liberals in second with 29%, ahead of the CAQ which they had down at 25%. EKOS pegged the CAQ at 24.5% and the PLQ at 23.2%, with left-wing Québec solidaire (QS) taking 10% in Ekos’s poll.

Going into the election, the PQ’s objective was to win a majority government, regardless of their share of the vote. According to most predictions, a majority was within reach for Pauline Marois’ party. Marois led a very poor campaign, and she was almost always in a defensive position by clarifying her positions, backtracking from previous statements, contradicting things she said in the past or correcting the pronouncements of other people in the PQ.

Jean Charest promised his supporters that he would win a fourth term with a majority government, which was never really within reach within this campaign and certainly not in the final stretch. Perhaps the PLQ’s secret objective was to salvage official opposition status and place a strong second to the PQ?

The CAQ’s objective was certainly to place second in terms of votes and seats, hence out-placing the PLQ for the official opposition job. When the CAQ was born in November last year, Legault’s objective was becoming Premier, but as the party’s numbers collapsed starting in January of this year, the CAQ’s hopes were dampened somewhat. Legault’s strong campaign allowed him to become a serious major player during the campaign, rather than an also-ran.

For the small parties, QS’ campaign was all about winning a second seat – Gouin, where co-leader Françoise David was running for the third time. QS really placed David rather than her co-leader, Amir Khadir (who already has a seat – Mercier – since 2008), on the forefront, notably by placing David in the first leader’s debate (where she scored a strong performance). For Option nationale (ON), the ‘hardline’ sovereigntist party led by former PQ MNA Jean-Martin Aussant, the sole objective was clearly to reelect Aussant in his riding of Nicolet-Bécancour.

Turnout reached an all-time low in 2008, 57.4%. Turnout – both advance voting and election day voting – saw a major surge in 2012, with turnout reaching 74.5%, the best level since 1998. The 2008 election was called by Charest as the most opportune time as he wanted to convert his paltry 2007 minority into a majority, and the result was a foregone conclusion throughout the campaign. It had failed to excite voters (who didn’t want an election to begin with), and the result was terrible turnout. However, this campaign interested and even excited (somewhat) voters (who, this time, wanted an election). The stakes were pretty high, the outcome was up in the air and the climate was one of deep dissatisfaction with the PLQ government and politics in general; all factors which contributed to the surge in turnout.

Tragically, the PQ’s election night rally was marked by a shooting, which killed one man (a 48-year old technician) and seriously injured another. The suspect is a 62-year old man, Richard Bain, who entered the Métropolis theatre in Montreal during Marois’ victory speech shortly before midnight and opened fire. Bain, who is an Anglophone, allegedly shouted “the English are waking up”, but he appears to be suffering from mental health issues.

The results were as follows:

PQ 31.94% (-3.23%) winning 54 seats (+3)
Liberal 31.21% (-10.87%) winning 50 seats (-16)
CAQ 27.06% (+10.69%) winning 19 seats (+12)
QS 6.03% (+2.25%) winning 2 seats (+1)
ON 1.9% (+1.9%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Green 1.00% (-1.17%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 0.91% (+0.47%) winning 0 seats (nc)

Quebec’s 2012 election was one of those elections where the top three parties have good reasons to be pleased with their results, but also a lot of reasons to be displeased by their party’s results. The PQ won the election, as was widely expected. However, the PQ won only 54 seats and fell far short of the 63 seats needed to form a majority government. Furthermore, on 31.9% of the vote, the PQ can hardly claim to have received a strong mandate from the people. On these numbers, Marois’ campaign certainly did not convince many swing voters but rather managed to hold the core PQ electorate, which had already voted PQ in 2008 (and probably 2007 and 2003 as well).

Pauline Marois did not lead a good campaign largely because she was forced to tack too much towards traditional sovereigntism. Marois herself is a fairly bland centrist technocrat who has no particular personal penchant towards hardline sovereigntism, an immediate third referendum and fanning the flames of linguistic nationalism. However, the PQ’s purs et durs have been remarkably successful at holding all previous PQ leaders (except Parizeau, fairly pur et dur himself) hostage and forcing them to move towards more radical positions in return for their continued backing. Those leaders who strayed from the pur et dur line, most notably René Lévesque himself in 1985, found their hold on the party untenable and were eventually forced out. A similar fate almost befell Pauline Marois last summer, when she faced a major caucus revolt which almost cost her the leadership. In order to hold her leadership, she was clearly forced to make concessions to the party’s ‘hardliners’, including the controversial “popular initiative referendum” (voters themselves could spark a third referendum on sovereignty if they gathered signatures), which she personally opposed but which was inserted into the PQ’s platform. Similarly, her ill-advised forays into the territory of linguistic nationalism (the extension of Bill 101 to CEGEP but particularly the kerfuffle over barring those Anglo or allophone candidates with poor French language skills from running in elections) were likely the result of pressure from the purs et durs. 

Running on such a platform, which hardly appealed to that third of swing soft-nationalist voters who are apathetic on the issue of sovereignty and more focused on bread-and-butter issues (economy, jobs, healthcare, pensions), she only held the core PQ electorate, composed in good part of that third or so of voters which quasi-unconditionally support Quebec sovereignty and vote for the PQ. Additionally, however, the PQ faced some fairly tough competition in the left-nationalist arena from QS and Aussant’s ON, two parties which fish largely in the same pond as the PQ. ON took away part of the pur et dur sovereigntist vote from the PQ, while QS was quite successful at appealing to predominantly urban left-wing Francophone voters.

Going forward, the PQ will need to rationally analyse its own results, and look specifically at what went wrong for the party, because at 32% of the vote and missing out at a majority government, this certainly wasn’t a good election for the PQ. The question of what to do with QS will be posed, given that it might have “spoiled” some seats for the PQ (even on the assumption that only 50% of QS voters would vote PQ in the absence of QS, rather than all of them). In this regard, Marois will need to decide whether she moves to the left or whether she tacks towards the centre. There is room for growth for the PQ on both the left and the centre, but perhaps a bit more room in the centre. However, the PQ government’s behaviour on the national question (does it go for a referendum quickly? does it follow through on its proposed changes to linguistic policy? how does it act vis-a-vis Ottawa?) will also be important for the PQ’s electoral chances in another election which will certainly come quite quickly – Marois has made no secret that she intends to call another election in a short timeframe, perhaps after only one year.

Ironically, the PLQ might have the most reasons to be pleased by its results. Certainly, with only 31.2% of the vote, the Quebec Liberals won their worst popular vote result since Confederation (their previous low, 33%, was also set by Charest in 2007). However, they have not only held on to second place and official opposition, their seat count (50 seats) is very healthy – extremely good considering how tough this election was for the PLQ. In the final stretch, with almost all pollsters showing the PLQ averaging third with only 26-28% support, there was a very real chance that the PLQ would be decimated on September 4 and reduced only to its Anglo/allophone rump on the West Island and isolated strongholds in the regions. However, the PLQ resisted spectacularly well on election night. The big story, besides the predictable PQ win, was the PLQ’s unexpectedly strong result, even if Jean Charest himself lost his own seat.

There was certainly a kind of “shy Liberal” factor at work on September 4. It might not actually be a shy Liberal factor but rather a fairly commonplace “shy incumbency” factor, whereby fairly unpopular incumbent governments underpoll and overperform their polling numbers on election night. In the 2008 and 2011 federal elections, the federal Tories (the incumbent government, who have never been wildly popular) underpolled while in the 2006 federal election, the federal Liberals – an unpopular incumbent governing party – underpolled as well.

Furthermore, there is also the issue that a lot of the CAQ’s support, even in the final stretch, was very feeble and could certainly have switched, in small part, back to the Liberals. The PLQ are a well-oiled political machine, with a strong GOTV operation and strong grassroots in many regions of Quebec, while the CAQ is a new party with much less resources, weak grassroots, weak candidates and an untested GOTV operation.

Finally, it might not be worth much in a big picture look at things, but consider the fact that the Green Party polled 2-3% in pre-election polls but it had candidates in only 66 of Quebec’s 125 ridings. Polls did not take differentiate between the ridings with and without a Green candidate, and potential Green voters who identified as Greens to pollsters but who had no local Green to vote for must have voted for another party, and some certainly voted for the Liberals given how the Greens are a more or less federalist party.

The PLQ’s strong finish shows the persistent relevance of the national question as a defining cleavage in provincial politics. If the Liberals had indeed finished at 26-27% support on election night, then the national question’s continued relevance as the cleavage in Quebec politics might have been questioned. However, the PLQ has not lost its place as the big-tent federalist party, and remains the PQ’s most serious rival in the province taken as a whole. For some voters, fears of a third referendum and associated concerns might have pushed some undecided voters to vote for the “safe” federalist option, the PLQ, against the institutional uncertainty which necessarily accompanies the PQ.

The CAQ, finally, had a fairly underwhelming and disappointing result. On the strong side, with 27% of the vote, the party is in the top leagues and on the level of popular vote, it is a serious rival to both the PQ and the PLQ. However, the popular vote tally doesn’t crown the winner(s) in the FPTP system. In the seat count, which is what matters most, the CAQ won only 19 seats, a far cry from the 25-30+ seats it could have realistically won and a long way away from the Liberals’ 50 and the PQ’s 54. With 19 out of 125 seats, it won only 15% of the seats. FPTP has played tricks on all parties in Quebec before, and both the PQ and Liberals (but also the ADQ, the CAQ’s predecessor) have had their share of fortunes and misfortunes wrought by the workings of FPTP.

The CAQ did not really underperform, with 27% it was in the lower range of both Léger and Crop’s margin of error (both pollsters placed it at 28% in their final poll) and it was even underestimated if you take into account Forum and Ekos’ last minute polls. What seems to have doomed the CAQ – we will come back to it when I crunch the results by region – was a fairly homogeneous distribution of its vote. It performed strongly in some regions, but it didn’t really have any dead zones (even in the West Island Liberal country, it put up very honourable results) nor did it have many core strongholds besides a few of the old ADQ strongholds. Nonetheless, 27% is still quite a distance from the record 30.8% and 41 seats won by Mario Dumont’s ADQ in the 2007 election.

Should the CAQ’s result be interpreted as a largely ideological vote prompted by voters who agreed with it on most issues, or rather a vaguer vote for “change” and a “third way”, which was, when the CAQ was created, the main reason why so many voters were originally quite excited about it. In part, by holding what is probably a solid share of the ADQ’s 2008 vote, the CAQ has won the centre-right electorate in Quebec politics. However, Legault’s campaign for “change” and his creed of “faire le ménage” (roughly: clean up politics) likely appealed to some more apathetic and ideologically undefined or uncertain voters who liked Legault’s message of “change” and his strong stance against corruption. To many voters, who disliked Charest’s Liberals but didn’t feel too hot about Marois’ PQ, Legault’s CAQ was the acceptable third option. For many others voters worried about economic issues, jobs, corruption, healthcare, pensions and so forth but probably not too keen about a third referendum and reopening the old debate, the CAQ was, again, quite attractive. Polls showed that the CAQ’s electorate in the polls was very fragile and fluid, while the PLQ and PQ had solidified their base of support.

Quebec’s electorate is remarkably fluid, and there is a good numbers of voters in almost every election who are up for grabs by nearly all the main parties. In 2007, the ADQ must have caught a good part of that fluid electorate, which probably overlaps well with that third or so of voters who are more apathetic about the national question and do not have a clearly defined and stable position on the question. In the 2011 federal elections, that same fluid electorate likely was behind most of the Orange (NDP) Crush in Quebec. In May 2011, the NDP attracted a very, very diverse and heterogeneous coalition which came from almost all sides: a very sizable share of federal Tory, Liberal, Bloc and Green voters from 2008 were behind the spectacular NDP surge. The CAQ likely took a good part of this electorate, but the fluidity of this electorate makes the CAQ’s standing more tenuous than that of the PLQ or the PQ.

However, the CAQ has not hit its ceiling. It has not even hit the 31% benchmark set by the ADQ in 2007, and at one time last year, the CAQ was polling up to 42%. The CAQ can still pull a good number of voters away from the PLQ and the PQ, though it has the trouble of having a good part of its existing 2012 electorate which is not solidly anchored politically, unlike the PLQ and the PQ.

The fourth party, QS has good reason to be pleased with its pleased with its result. It won 6% of the vote, but above all it doubled its representation, now holding two seats – and both of them with a fairly comfortable margin. 6% is certainly not what QS was polling in the pre-campaign season, where it peaked at 8-10% support, but considering how soft some of that support was and how vulnerable QS’ support was to a well-run PQ campaign, it must count as a success that they maintained their support throughout the campaign.

David’s strong performance in the first leaders’ debate likely accounts for her fairly impressive victory in Gouin, where she went up against a 9.3% majority held by a rising-star PQ incumbent, Nicolas Girard, and won a 13.6% majority with 46.2% of the vote (up 14% from her 2008 result). It is quite certain that David has gained a sizable personal vote, similarly Amir Khadir in Mercier improved his margin as well (he now has a large 23% majority). In addition, QS ate into a large PQ majority in Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques (down to 10%, from 31%) and came third in Laurier-Dorion, but within 9.8% of the first-placed Liberals.

6% is a very good result for QS, but is it slowly starting to hit its ceiling? In its present form, the party is too ideologically ‘radical’ and its electorate far too narrow for it to realistically hope to become a major political player, but it still has some room for growth on the left. The presence of the party’s two co-leaders in the National Assembly will be a major advantage for QS, just like Amir Khadir’s election in 2008 likely helped the party build up its stature and stand where it stands today (and it is quite a remarkable standing for a third party which is only 6 years old!). It will be interesting to see how the party fares with an expanded caucus in the legislature and under a new government. If the PQ seeks to expand its support by moving slightly to the left, it could feasibly eat into QS’ support, but if the PQ governs at a more centrist or even centre-right (Bouchard-like) level, QS would have room to grow.

The new party on the block, ON, lost its bet. It had laid almost all of its hopes in the reelection of its leader, Jean-Martin Aussant, in Nicolet-Bécancour. Aussant placed a good second with 25.9% in his riding, but lost his seat (to the CAQ) by a bit over 6%. That ON, a brand new party, managed to field candidates in almost every single riding (121 out of the province’s 125 ridings, in Gouin it had already agreed not to run a candidate against David in return for QS’ support in his seat), should count as a success for them, but unsurprisingly no other candidate won a significant share of the vote – I haven’t counted, but they perhaps won 1-3% or something. Out of the 82,857 votes cast for ON candidates, a full 9.5% (!) of them were cast in a single riding – for Aussant.

What will happen to the party after this disappointing finish remains to be seen, but it is doubtful that they have much room to grow without a voice in the National Assembly.

ON, however, can find solace in the fact that they beat out the Green Party in the popular vote. The PVQ had its brief moment in the sun during the 2007 election, when it won 3.9% of the vote, but it has since collapsed back into utter irrelevance. It has shifted through three leaders, its 2007 leader (Scott McKay) is now a PQ MNA (since 2008). The PVQ nominated only 66 candidates this year, and did not manage any media coverage besides a terrible report by La Presse about how one of its journalists managed to become a Green candidate without any background checks. Green leader Claude Sabourin managed to win only 6.3% of the vote in the Montreal riding of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, the strongest seat for the Quebec Greens, where they won about 15% in the last two elections.

The PVQ’s potential base of support has already been eaten up by QS and, to a lesser extent, the PQ, and this year it lost a good part of its remaining ‘actual’ base of support – disgruntled Anglophones who didn’t vote Liberal – a group to which the CAQ had some success appealing to.

Regional Results

The battlegrounds of this election were suburban Montreal – Laval and the greater 450 belt in Montérégie (south shore), Laurentides and Lanaudière (north shore); the national capital region (Quebec City and its north and south shore suburbs and greater region); the Eastern Townships (Estrie) and the ‘remote’ regions of Gaspésie, Saguenay and Abitibi. The results in these regions explain why the PQ won, why it failed to win a majority, why the Liberals performed better than they did and why the CAQ fell flat on its nose seat-wise.

In Montreal proper, the PQ failed to win any of the four Liberal-held seats it was thought to have a serious shot at winning. Ultimately, the Liberals resisted comparatively well in Verdun (held with a 1.6% majority), Saint-Henri-Sainte-Anne (held with a 6.4% majority), Laurier-Dorion (held with a 7.7% majority, QS was likely a major “spoiler” here, winning 24.3%) and Anjou-Louis-Riel (held with a 9.2% majority). Rather, the PQ lost a star incumbent in Gouin with the defeat of Nicolas Girard, a close ally of Pauline Marois, and saw its strongholds (notably Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques) become more vulnerable to QS. Perhaps the PQ’s only success (of sorts) in Montreal was holding the disputed riding of Crémazie by nearly 10 points against the PLQ candidate, former federal Liberal MP Eleni Bakopanos, even if the PQ’s raw vote share took a big hit there too.

The Liberals resisted fairly well in their West Island, easily holding on to well over 60% of the Anglophone and allophone vote. The PLQ’s best riding was, as always, the predominantly Jewish riding of D’Arcy-McGee, where Liberal incumbent Lawrence Bergman won 84.72% of the vote, down only marginally from the 88.8% he won in 2008. The CAQ had some success in appealing to non-Francophone voters on Montreal island, placing distant seconds (ahead of the Greens and also the PQ) in almost every West Island riding in Montreal.

I have not yet compiled a map of the percentage change in the share of the vote for the four main parties since 2008, but from cursory observations, it appears as if QS’ gains were far heavier in Montreal – its stronghold – than in the regions. David increased her personal vote share by a full 14 points, Khadir by nearly 9 points. It was more than just a personal vote for David and an incumbency boost for a well-liked incumbent like Khadir, given that the QS vote jumped by over 10 points in Laurier-Dorion, Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.

The pattern of support for QS in Montreal follows, ironically, the orange line of the Montreal subway, concentrated in the Plateau-Mont-Royal district but also extending a bit into core downtown Montreal to the south and Villeray to the north. After all, QS’ old website (archived here) listed one of the top “myths” about QS was that it was the “party of the Plateau” (another of the myths they list – that they’re a bunch of ‘granolas’ also tells us something about the popular conception of the QS electorate). The Plateau is a gentrified and very trendy/hip neighborhood in central Montreal with a large multicultural concentration of students, young professionals, artists and a social mix of upscale bobos and more deprived inhabitants. Parts of Villeray, where QS certainly did very well (24.3% in Laurier-Dorion, which means they probably won some 30-35% in the Villeray parts of the riding), have also become the next gentrified trendy neighborhoods of Montreal. The student movement, which QS actively supported, found strong support in the Plateau and Villeray during the student protests earlier this year.

In suburban Laval, the Liberals resisted fairly well altogether although they lost two seats to the PQ. The most significant PQ victory was in the closely-fought riding of Laval-des-Rapides, where 20-year old former student leader Léo Bureau-Blouin defeated PLQ incumbent Alain Paquet and CAQ star candidate Maud Cohen with 37.9% against 32.8% and 21.7% respectively. The PQ also gained Sainte-Rose, but the Liberals were successful in Mille-Îles, Vimont and Fabre, three key marginals. The CAQ performed very strongly in Laval, taking 29.6% in Vimont and 27.7% in Fabre.

In terms of winning seats, the CAQ failed in the north shore suburbs (northern 450 belt). This crucial battleground region propelled the ADQ into official opposition in the 2007 election, when Mario Dumont’s party swept almost all of the north shore suburbs, but they returned to their traditional péquiste roots in the 2008 election. This is a swing region of predominantly middle-class Francophone suburbs, which gave the OUI some very solid margins in 1995, but which has generally shifted away from active sovereigntism towards some vaguer brand of soft-nationalism and relative apathy on the national question. After all, in the 2011 federal election, the federal NDP swept nearly everything here (and this part of Quebec was likely where voters flirted with the Harper Tories in 2007-2008).

The north shore suburban ridings were must-wins for the CAQ, and their failure to gain many seats here on September 4 doomed their attempt to become the official opposition. The matter is not that the CAQ did surprisingly poorly here, according to this breakdown of votes by region, the CAQ won 35% to the PQ’s 42% in Laurentides-Lanaudière, but they got screwed over by the workings of FPTP. In these two regions combined, the PQ took 11 seats to the CAQ’s mere 4. François Legault won in L’Assomption (with 42.3% against 39.6% for the PQ), PQ-turned-CAQ incumbent Daniel Ratthé held on in Blainville (with 41.2% against 35.6% for the PQ), former Montreal police chief and star whistle-blower Jacques Duchesneau won in Saint-Jérôme (with 40% against 37.7% for the PQ) and the CAQ won Groulx (38% against 34% for the PQ).

However, it came up short in Terrebonne (44.5% for the PQ against 36% for CAQ star candidate Dr. Gaétan Barrette) and Deux-Montagnes (38.8% for the PQ against 35.2% for PQ-turned-CAQ incumbent member Benoit Charette). Despite putting up some very solid results in Masson (35.7%), Repentigny (37.7%) and Mirabel (36.4%), it fell short of the PQ. That being said, while the CAQ’s performance on the north shore taken only in terms of winning seats was a failure, its actual level of support was quite solid and it has established itself – for now – as the only serious rival to the PQ in this region. Indeed, the PLQ was utterly crushed throughout the northern 450 belt, falling well below 20% in every single riding in the Laurentides and Lanaudière (besides Argenteuil, the old PLQ stronghold which the PQ gained in a by-election earlier this summer and held on September 4 by a solid margin). The Liberals had sizable support in parts of Rosemère and Lorraine in the 2008 election (ridings of Groulx and Blainville), they were totally flattened by the CAQ, which likely ate up a good number of Francophone upper middle-class Liberal voters in the 450.

The CAQ’s performance in the non-suburban parts of Laurentides and Lanaudière were far more underwhelming. This includes ridings such as Joliette and Berthier which the ADQ had won in the 2007 election and which could potentially have been long-shot targets for the CAQ. In Berthier, the PQ won 47% to the CAQ’s 32.3% and only 30% against 47.1% for the PQ in Joliette. Oddly, however, the CAQ with a 21-year old candidate managed to give high-profile PQ incumbent Nicolas Marceau (the party’s finance critic) a close race in Rousseau (39.2% for the CAQ, 41.6% for Marceau), a seat which was held until 2009 by none other than François Legault.

On the south shore suburbs of Montreal (Montérégie), all three parties had their share of good results. The Liberals easily held La Pinière (Brossard, a suburban community with a large non-Francophone population) but also held Laporte and Châteauguay by comfortable margins. The PLQ also held Vaudreuil, a riding with a large English minority (in Hudson) easily and held The PQ easily held its own strongholds, notably Marie-Victorin, Taillon and Vachon and handily defeated PQ-turned-CAQ incumbent François Rebello in Sanguinet (41% against 32.4% for Rebello). The CAQ, however, was successful in La Prairie (an affluent middle-class suburban riding, it won 32.7% to 32.4% for the PQ) and in Montarville (36% against 31.5% for the PQ, a surprise gain by the CAQ). Montarville, a significantly redistributed riding which includes Boucherville and Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville, was notionally Liberal on 2008 results, but the PLQ won only 24.4% this year. Once again, it appears as if the CAQ made major inroads with upper middle-class Francophone voters who had leaned towards Charest’s Liberals in 2008.

The CAQ was unsuccessful in its attempts to topple PQ incumbents in the exurban regions of Montérégie. Once again, the CAQ certainly did post some strong numbers, again referring to the breakdown of votes by region, the CAQ apparently won 29.5% in the region (ahead of the Liberals, who won 26%, but far behind the PQ which won 36%) but it took only 2 seats against 12 for the PQ and 6 for the Liberals. The Liberals had the advantage of incumbency but also benefited from the concentration of their votes in certain ridings, while the CAQ posted fairly homogeneous numbers throughout the region. In terms of seats, this meant that while the CAQ did well in key ridings such as Chambly (34.2%, 40.1% PQ), Saint-Jean (33%, 40.6% PQ), Iberville (33.3%, 38.8% PQ), Sainte-Hyacinthe (31.6%, 36.3% PQ) and Huntingdon (26%, 26.7% PQ and 39.6% PLQ), it was still no cookie for them.

The Liberals’ resilience in the Eastern Townships was remarkable, with the very notable exception of Sherbrooke where Premier Charest himself was defeated. However, with the exception of Sherbrooke and Saint-François, the Liberals were triumphant in every other closely contested riding they held in the region, ridings which the PQ and/or CAQ had seriously targeted. In Brome-Missisquoi, Liberal incumbent Pierre Paradis, who has held this seat since 1980, was narrowly reelected with 33.1% against 32.3% for the CAQ when most had assumed that he would go down to defeat after 32 years of incumbency. In Orford, the Liberals fended off a strong PQ challenge with 36.6% against 30.6% for the PQ. In Mégantic, the Liberals held on with 35.1% against 31.2% for the PQ. In Richmond, finally, the daughter of retiring PLQ incumbent Yvon Vallières defeated PQ incumbent Etienne Alexis-Boucher (elected in 2008 in Johnson, redistricting moved him to Richmond) with 35.5% against 34.9% for Boucher. In Johnson, the CAQ was narrowly defeated by the PQ.

The big race on election night was Sherbrooke, a riding which Jean Charest has represented both federally and provincially since 1984 (he has held the provincial riding since 1998). Sherbrooke, a largely Francophone seat with a large student population drawn to a local university, has never been a safe seat for the PLQ and Charest never won by overwhelmingly large margins, and come close to defeat in 2007. This year, the PQ fancied their chances against the unpopular incumbent Premier and got a star candidate, former Bloc MP Serge Cardin. The contest was fairly close, but Cardin prevailed by a strong margin with 42.4% against 34.6% for Jean Charest. It is clear that Cardin managed to coalesce the anti-Charest vote: the PQ vote in the riding increased this year compared to 2008 (from 37.6% in 2008), the QS vote was nearly flat at 7% and the CAQ won only 11.8%.

The fact that Serge Cardin had less trouble running against the incumbent Premier of Quebec (and a longtime local incumbent) than the 19-year old rookie federal NDP candidate who defeated him in 2011 does tell volumes about either Charest’s personal unpopularity or the bizarre nature of Quebec politics. Charest’s defeat makes him the first incumbent Premier to lose reelection since Bourassa in 1976.

The CAQ was successful in central Quebec, gaining Aussant’s seat of Nicolet-Bécancour but also PQ-held Drummond-Bois-Francs and notionally PLQ Arthabaska, where ADQ/CAQ incumbent Sylvie Roy defeated Liberal incumbent Claude Bachand easily, with 42% against 30.5% for the Liberal.

The Mauricie region was a close three-way battleground on September 4, even though all ridings eventually returned their incumbent or incumbent party. In the very closely contested riding of Trois-Rivières, PLQ incumbent Danielle St-Amand narrowly defeated the PQ’s local star candidate, Djemila Benhabib with 35% against 32% for Benhabib, with the CAQ taking 23.3%. In Maskinongé, the close three-way fight ended up favouring the incumbent Liberals, who won 32.1% against 30% apiece for the CAQ and PQ. The PQ fended up strong CAQ challenges in Saint-Maurice and Champlain. There was, however, no suspense in Laviolette, where Liberal incumbent Julie Boulet was reelected with a large majority (on that note, somebody will need to explain to me why Boulet has such a large personal vote in a Francophone rural riding which was over 55% OUI in 1995 and was a PQ stronghold in the past).

In Quebec City, the CAQ, as expected, dominated the match, but the Liberals did not come out too bruised. The ADQ-turned-CAQ incumbents in La Peltrie and Chauveau won huge majorities, but the CAQ – as expected – also gained exurban Portneuf (40.7%, 33.5% PLQ) and the urban/suburban ridings of Vanier-Les Rivières (37.9%, 35% PLQ), Charlesbourg (37%, 34.2% PLQ) and Montmorency (38.2%, 33.2% PLQ). The Liberals held Jean-Talon, Louis-Hébert (two seats with incumbent cabinet ministers) but also Jean-Lesage, a close three-way marginal where the PLQ took 30.6% against 28.6% for the PQ and 27.3% for the CAQ. The PQ placed a distant third in the capital region as a whole, but Agnès Maltais held the downtown PQ bastion of Taschereau (37.1% against 25.8% for Liberal cabinet minister Clément Gignac) and Pauline Marois herself won reelection handily in Charlevoix-Côte-de-Beaupré).

Many have sought to explain Quebec City’s “paradoxical” voting patterns – a major capital city which is conservative and well-known for its popular and very right-wing talk-radio. The PQ (and its federal counterpart) has performed poorly in Quebec City in almost every recent election, while the Liberals and the ADQ (and now the CAQ) have usually crossed swords in most of the city’s riding. Certainly, in contrast to Montreal, Quebec City is not extremely polarized and certainly not predictable. The federal Tories performed strongly in Quebec City in 2006 and 2008, but the NDP defeated all Conservative (and Bloc) incumbents in Quebec City in the May 2011 federal election. Provincially, the PLQ did well in 2003 and then again in 2008, but the ADQ had done very well in the capital in 2007.

Many have attempted their own explanations of the Quebec City “paradox”, including this article in English. The political mood in Quebec City is an interesting mix of economic conservatism and fairly right-wing attitudes on government spending, some opposition to public servants (who, while important in the provincial capital, do not account for a majority of the jobs) and a feeling of resentment (and perhaps superiority) to Montreal, Quebec’s economic capital. As the CAQ’s results show, this centre-right brand of politics is strongest in the city’s suburban outskirts, while the lower-income and more trendy downtown Vieux-Québec area is quite left-wing. Quebec City’s politics are, in the end, not all that mysterious.

The CAQ’s results in the Chaudières-Appalaches and Bas-Saint-Laurent were, however, surprisingly mediocre. The Chaudières-Appalaches, Quebec’s most conservative region and the ADQ’s old stronghold, was a region where the CAQ was widely expected to do very well and easily root out vulnerable PLQ incumbents in Beauce-Sud, Bellechasse or even Lotbinière-Frontenac. The CAQ was able to gain Lévis, a south shore suburb of Quebec City with 39.9% and 31% PLQ and it held the ADQ seats of Chutes-de-la-Chaudière and Beauce-Nord by huge margins. However, in Beauce-Sud, probably one of the biggest Liberal upsets of the night, PLQ incumbent Robert Dutil was narrowly reelected with 42.4% against 40.5% for the CAQ. The CAQ was also unable to gain either Bellechasse, Lotbinière-Frontenac or Côte-du-Sud.

The CAQ had been expected to perform very well in this rural region, a part of heavily Francophone Quebec distinct for its conservatism and federalism. This region formed the ADQ’s backbone and it is where the federal Conservatives find their last base of support in Quebec. The CAQ’s poor results in this region combined with similarly weak results in rural parts of Lanaudière (a conservative region, but a very sovereigntist one, in contrast) where the ADQ had been triumphant in 2007 could indicate that more right-leaning and conservative-minded voters in rural and small-town areas of the province remained more reluctant to vote for the CAQ, whose appeal this year was first and foremost suburban.

The PQ made its most significant gains in Gaspésie, Saguenay and the Abitibi.

In the Gaspésie, the PQ was able to score a grand-slam, gaining three seats from the Liberals. They gained the Îles-de-la-Madeleine, a traditional bellwether until 2003, taking 51% against 38.5% for the PLQ incumbent. On the mainland, it was a phenomenal PQ landslide in both Gaspé (56.6% against 28.4% for the Liberal incumbent) and even in Bonaventure (47.5% against 34.9% for the Liberal incumbent). Considering that the Liberals were resilient in almost all of their traditional strongholds besides Argenteuil, their defeat by such a large margin in Bonaventure – even if somewhat predictable – was surprising. The Liberals had held the seat in a November 2011 by-election with 49.5% against 37.2% for the PQ.

In the sovereigntist hotbed of the Saguenay, the Liberals had only one defending incumbent, cabinet minister Serge Simard in Dubuc. Simard was badly defeated, winning only 27.6% against 42.2% for the PQ. In the Abitibi, the PQ easily gained the open Liberal-held seat of Rouyn-Noranda-Témiscamingue (36.8% vs 26.5% for the Liberals) and narrowly defeated incumbent PLQ cabinet minister Pierre Corbeil in Abitibi-Est (38.4% against 34.9% for Corbeil).

The Liberals held all their seats in their traditional Outaouais stronghold, including Hull and Papineau, two seats which the PQ was thought to have a serious shot at. The PQ has not won any seats in this region, which has a significant Anglophone minority and a large population of federal public servant, since 1981.



This legislature is not widely expected to last for a very long time, though in the short term, neither the Liberals – who are left without a leader for the time being – or the CAQ have reasons to quickly bring down this government. Legault has backtracked on his prior statement that he would not cooperate with either party and has said that he stood ready to work with the PQ government on a case-by-case basis on certain issues.

It is in Legault’s interest to let the PQ minority government serve its time a bit and evaluate how voters react to the Marois government before seriously trying to force an election on her. The CAQ still needs to build itself as a party, and while it has much room to grow it also has a fairly fluid electorate which could feasibly switch to the PQ or the Liberals given appropriate circumstances. It needs to recruit star candidates, gain financial resources (the party’s campaign this year was far more modest in size and reach than the PQ and PLQ campaigns) and develop solid political machines.

It is hard to say how Pauline Marois will end up governing – will she be a fiery sovereigntist and engage Stephen Harper in a bloody tug-of-war contest as the PQ has promised (on top of that, will she hold or be forced to hold a referendum in the near future?), or will she prefer a more wait-and-see approach to sovereignty and govern as a technocrat? It is a certainty that a PQ government will be far more belligerent in its relations with Ottawa than Jean Charest’s Liberals were, even if Harper and Charest weren’t the best buddies in the world.

It is likely that the economic policy of a PQ government will be more left-wing than Charest’s economic policy was, given that Marois has talked about stuff like tax-the-rich and has been a bit ambiguous on the debt and deficit issues (beyond the usual platitude of being ‘fiscally responsible’). The PQ is on better terms with the student movement than Charest was, but that isn’t saying much. The PQ has only promised a a temporary freeze in tuition fees at their 2012 level and talks about holding some big conference on education in the near future, but Marois could quickly be forced to increase tuition fees and risk the continued ire of the student movement.

Jean Charest has stepped down from politics after a 28-year long career in federal and provincial politics, leaving the Quebec Liberals, the party which he has led for 14 years, without a leader. Jean-Marc Fournier, the outgoing justice minister, would have been the frontrunner but he seems to be interested only in taking the interim leadership and not in running for the permanent leadership. It is important that the PLQ has a strong interim leader who can be a strong and vocal opponent to the government, and it is also important that the PLQ picks a new leader fairly quickly, given that minority parliaments mean that the election campaign begins right after the actual election.

With Fournier down, the main contenders for PLQ leadership are Pierre Moreau (transports minister), Yves Bolduc (health minister), Raymond Bachand (finance minister), Lise Thériault (labour minister), Sam Hamad (economic development minister) and long-time MNA Pierre Paradis (who ran for the leadership against Bourassa in 1983 and has been a backbencher critical of Charest since 2003). All of them have been named as potential contenders and most appear openly interested. None of these candidates appear particularly strong, especially not the likes of hapless Sam Hamad. The Liberals are fortunate to have come out with a large caucus which is not only a West Island Montreal caucus, but they still have a very tough road to climb, even if they’re only bruised and far from mortally wounded.

Marois will certainly wait for the Charbonneau Commission on corruption to come out with its report, which will likely hurt the Liberals considerably, before considering calling another election herself. Her obvious goal is to use the commission’s report to cripple the Liberals, call an election and hope to win a strong majority government from voters.

The election of a PQ government shakes up Quebecois and Canadian politics in a major way. Regardless of one’s political opinions, this election proved to be a rather interesting one.

A post on provincial by-elections in Ontario and Manitoba is upcoming