The battle for Quebec could be a liberal-bloc confrontation, but surprises still possible

MONTREAL – The battle for the votes in Quebec is shaping up to be a confrontation between the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois, experts say, but history has shown that voters in the province are regularly able to surprise.

When Parliament was dissolved, the Liberals held 35 seats in Quebec against 32 for the Bloc, which again became relevant in 2019 under the leadership of Yves-François Blanchet. The Conservatives had 10 and the NDP had one.

“I expect the dynamic to be that of the Bloc against the Liberals, with the NDP and Conservatives a bit on the outside because of the dynamic in place,” Daniel Weinstock, professor of law at McGill University and Katharine A. Pearson Chair in Civil Society and Public Policy, said in a recent interview.

Three experts who spoke to The Canadian Press all agreed that the stakes in Quebec are highest for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who needs a solid demonstration if he hopes to return to a majority government. The Liberals won a majority in 2015 and a minority government in the 2019 election.

Winning seats, especially in the suburbs of Montreal or Quebec City, “would clearly be part of the puzzle that would get (the Liberals) across the finish line,” Weinstock said.

To be successful, Trudeau will need to navigate cautiously in a provincial political climate with a distinct national bias, while facing an opponent to Blanchet who will be keen to exploit any perceived difference between the interests of the Liberal leader and Quebec.

This renewed climate of Quebec nationalism is defended by Prime Minister François Legault, who tabled a law banning religious symbols, tabled a strict law on the French language and proposed to amend the constitution of Canada to officially recognize Quebec as a nation with French as the only official language.

Weinstock said this “nationalist entrenchment” makes it more difficult for the Conservatives and the NDP to break through in Quebec, despite overtures from the two party leaders and an established base of Conservative support near Quebec. Neither Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole nor NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh have any particularly close ties to the province, even though O’Toole was born in Montreal, he said.

Quebec voters have, however, proven time and time again that they are capable of surprises.

In the recent federal election, a large bloc of the province’s electorate was willing to change allegiance on a scale large enough to change the course of an election.

In 2011, Quebec voters were the driving force behind an “orange wave” that propelled the NDP led by Jack Layton to official opposition status – its best result in party history. In 2015, the province helped send the Trudeau Liberals to a majority.

Three years ago, the Bloc Québécois came back from obscurity by tripling more than the number of its seats, a result that few analysts had predicted.

Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, says it’s this volatility, combined with a high number of seats, that makes the province a potential kingmaker. “It can be full of surprises,” he said.

“It seems that many francophone voters are not loyal to one party and may change their minds at the last minute.

And while the possibility of a big win makes the province irresistible to political leaders, it’s not always clear what drives the allegiances of its constituents.

While the province has rarely voted en masse for a politician from outside the province, Layton’s strong performance shows that perfect French is not always a prerequisite. Layton was originally from Ontario but had Quebec roots, spoke his imperfect French with a Quebec accent and was able to connect with people, Beland said.

“Identity is very important to voters, and we have proof of that,” he said.

Guy Lachapelle, professor of political science at Concordia University, said there are several issues that could be relevant in Quebec. They include the environment and pipelines, Trudeau’s decision to appoint a governor general who does not speak French, health care transfers to the provinces, and how to pay for expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Legault, too, could be a wild card. While the prime minister is unlikely to openly take sides, Lachapelle said leaders would all be eager to curry his favor – something the prime minister could subtly exploit to extract promises.

“He is not going to support the Bloc, but it is clear that the Bloc is useful to him when it comes to asking for things for Quebec over the next two years,” said Lachapelle.

Beland says Blanchet’s challenge will be to convince voters that Trudeau is out of step with Quebec values, although he says Trudeau’s support for stricter French-language laws and the failure to challenge Quebec’s proposal to amending the constitution could give the leader of the Bloc less ammunition than in the past years. Trudeau, meanwhile, will have to convince voters in the province that they are best served by voting for a party that can form government rather than a party like the Bloc that can only oppose it.

He said the results should depend not only on politics, but also on the emotional appeal of the leaders. While this is true everywhere, he said this effort takes on a “special flavor” in Quebec given the province’s distinct identity.

“It’s a mixture of having the right political message, but also crafted in a way that could appeal to the identity of the voters so that they say, ‘I can relate to this person and this program. “Beland said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on August 22, 2021.

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