It’s not just a cliché: the choice of a new leader is decisive for the very future of the Quebec Liberal Party. In 2018, the Liberals suffered the worst election loss in their history. After four years in government, they won less than 25 per cent of the vote and elected only 32 members of the National Assembly out of 125. That number has since been reduced to 28, none of them representing ridings located east of the Montreal metropolitan area. Though still the official opposition, the Liberals are in effect a minor party among francophone voters.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, only two candidates entered the race, a race that has faded from view in the shadow of the COVID-19 crisis. Of the two, Dominique Anglade was widely seen as the favourite, even though she had relatively shallow roots in the party. Former president of François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), now in power, she was recruited by the Liberals, ran successfully in a 2015 byelection and was then appointed to the cabinet in 2017 by Premier Philippe Couillard. Anglade’s opponent, Alexandre Cusson, was a newcomer to Quebec politics, though well known at the municipal level. Former mayor of the middle-sized city of Drummondville, east of Montreal, he had been chosen president of the Union des Municipalités du Québec.

The winner of the planned closed primary was originally to be announced on May 31. In light of the COVID-19 crisis, the race was put on hold on March 20. But on May 11, Cusson announced that he was stepping out of the race. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he stated, he did not see the race resuming until 2021. Not financially independent, he could not see how he could sustain his campaign for such a long time. The party wasted no time: on the same day it announced that Dominique Anglade would take over as the Liberals’ new leader.

A disoriented party

Long before the COVID-19 crisis, the Quebec Liberal Party was going through its own existential crisis. This is a party with a rich history, known for its adaptability and intimately associated with the history of Quebec. It is the only existing political party whose history goes back to the very beginnings of the Quebec party system, with representatives elected to the Quebec parliament in every election since 1867. Over the years, its program found its way into many of Quebec’s major social, economic and cultural policies.

In terms of adaptability, while the Liberals were originally fiercely opposed to the creation of the Canadian federation, in our time they became its most ardent defender (though, it must be said, they have never accepted the unilateral patriation of the Constitution in 1982). In the 1960s, the Liberal Party under Jean Lesage ushered in the Quiet Revolution. By the time of Jean Charest (premier from 2003 to 2012) and Philippe Couillard, however, the party’s orientation had gone from state building to “reengineering” the state, with an emphasis on budgetary austerity. In the 1970s, Robert Bourassa made French the only official language of Quebec. Today, his party’s electoral base has largely been reduced to the anglophone community.

This is not the first time the Quebec Liberal Party has found itself in a period of crisis. One indicator of both its importance and its precariousness is that, as the late political scientist Vincent Lemieux pointed out, it gave birth to its main adversaries. In the 1930s, Maurice Duplessis’s Union Nationale, which dominated Quebec for the next generation, emerged from the amalgamation of the Conservative Party and dissident Liberals who had formed the Action Libérale Nationale. In the late 1960s, René Lévesque left the Liberal Party to found the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association, which became the Parti Québécois. Thirty years later, in the wake of the 1992 Charlottetown Accord referendum, Mario Dumont and Jean Allaire left the Liberals to found the Action Démocratique du Québec, which merged in 2012 with the CAQ, now the dominant party. In each case, it should be noted, the Liberals were able to rise again.

But as also noted, never before has the Liberal Party appeared as weak as it does today. Dominique Anglade takes over a party operating in a fragmented four-party system in the National Assembly. The Liberals are struggling to redefine themselves in a political universe where the divide between the Yes and No sides on independence is no longer the defining cleavage. With an aging membership and unfilled coffers, the Quebec Liberal Party has to take on the autonomist but not sovereignist CAQ, which occupies the economic space that had been its trademark.

A new formula for selecting the leader

The last time the Liberals chose a leader, to replace Jean Charest in 2013, Philippe Couillard was elected using the traditional convention formula. Delegates lined up to vote for one of the three former ministers seeking the leadership. Couillard won a majority in the first round so there was no need for further ballots.

This time, for the first time in their history, the Liberals decided not to choose their leader at a convention. There were to be no delegates. The vote would have taken place in a closed primary in which all party members would be entitled to vote. This formula was chosen because it was seen as providing an opportunity to remobilize the party’s base.

Given the party’s weakness off Montreal Island, ballots were not going to be counted on a one-member-one-vote basis. To mitigate the overrepresentation of Montrealers as well as older Quebecers in the membership, the vote would have been calculated using a point system. Each of the 125 constituencies had 2,000 points to be allocated to the candidates in proportion to the percentage of votes received from members aged 26 and over. In addition, 125,000 points would have been allocated on a Quebec-wide basis in proportion to the votes received from members aged 25 and under. No wonder the party’s youth commission had been intensely courted by the candidates.

The party planned to use preferential voting to allow voters to rank candidates. With only two eligible candidates, however, this was moot. At the end of the race, voting was to have taken place by telephone and online over a period of at least five consecutive days.

A missed repositioning opportunity

A well-organized leadership race is an opportunity to discuss and question party priorities and allow members to take back their party. After the Liberals held power with only a brief interruption over a 15-year period, a competitive race could have been, as hoped, an occasion to mobilize the membership and thus revitalize internal democracy. But a race can also be divisive. Once several higher-profile figures whose names had come up declined – including three sitting MNAs (Gaëtan Barrette, André Fortin and Marwah Rizqy) as well as former ministers Denis Coderre and Pierre Moreau – the relatively low profile of the remaining candidates made both the revitalization and the division less likely.

Dominique Anglade managed to officially submit her nomination in late January, while Alexandre Cusson submitted his in early March. The rules required a $50,000 deposit and the signatures of 750 members from at least 70 constituencies and 12 regions, and at least 250 had to have joined the party after May 5, 2019. Anglade, with 13 MNAs behind her, had the support of the majority of caucus members. That level of backing consolidated the perception that she was the favourite. Cusson, who started later, had the support of only two MNAs.

As the campaign began Cusson went on the attack, so the imposed pause was experienced as a real truce. Cusson’s campaign put forward few policy proposals. He concentrated on questioning Dominique Anglade’s Liberal roots and stressing ethical concerns to distance himself from previous Liberal regimes, but did not garner much public attention. For her part, Anglade did not offer many policy commitments. A priority was to be the adoption of a Charter of Regions, understandable for a candidate seen as being too Montreal-based. Unlike her opponent, she also made it clear that she would let the courts determine the fate of Bill 21, the secularism act passed by the CAQ government. She would therefore not renew the notwithstanding clause when it expires.

A new start?

Long before the COVID-19 crisis, the Liberal leadership race was conducted in a climate of relative indifference on the part of both the press and the population. Dominique Anglade initially opposed any suspension of the race because of the crisis. Although she quickly changed her mind, this episode raised doubts about her political judgement. At the time Cusson dropped out, little was known about the wider concerns of the two candidates. The debates were expected to allow them to distinguish themselves and set out their priorities and deeper goals. The unforeseen pause could have given them the time and opportunity to rework their discourse and better articulate their vision in debates that could break down the wall of indifference and shed light on the contest. But it was not to be.

In hindsight, this race emerges as a missed opportunity. Dominique Anglade achieved her goal, but at what cost? A coronation in the shadow of the Covid-19 crisis, where all attention is on François Legault and his government. It is hard to see how the change of leadership will prove to be the new start Liberals were seeking.

Once again, the outcome of the federal election in Quebec came as a surprise. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were counting on the collapse of the NDP to gain seats here to compensate for losses elsewhere and maintain their majority. When the election campaign began, the polls predicted two types of races in Quebec. One was for first place between the Liberals and Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives, who stressed their openness to Quebec’s priorities and recruited several star candidates. The other saw the NDP, like the Bloc, fighting for survival, with the Greens hoping to make a breakthrough. As is rarely the case, Quebec was seen as a real battleground, with the major parties agreeing to hold two debates in French compared to only one in English.

However, nothing happened as planned. The NDP’s losses indeed proved significant, with 15 fewer Quebec MPs. But it was the Bloc Québécois that benefited, gaining 22 seats, while the Liberals lost five.

How can we explain the return of the Bloc Québécois? In my view, the key is that, unlike his predecessors Stephen Harper and Paul Martin, who were careful to be respectful of Quebec’s jurisdictions, Justin Trudeau paved the way for the Bloc’s return.

Quebec’s Unique Political Dynamic

We can never repeat it enough: there are two distinct party systems in Canada. One operates in Quebec, the other in the rest of Canada. The distinct society that is Quebec manifests itself during federal elections.

It is important to remember that Quebecers have little interest in federal politics. Their national political stage is in Quebec City. Their national parliament is the Quebec National Assembly. In this context, except when there is a crisis or during an election campaign, federal politics does not make headlines and remains a secondary subject of discussion. As a result, any major movements of support toward or away from federal parties almost exclusively manifest themselves during election campaigns. In 2011, it was the NDP that took advantage of this; in 2015 it was the Liberals.

The presence of the Bloc Québécois also makes for a different political dynamic. The centre-periphery cleavage still plays a role. Beyond the language issue, federal political parties are, at least in part, judged from the perspective of federal-provincial relations and Quebec’s autonomy. While Stephen Harper had sought to respect provincial jurisdictions, Justin Trudeau remobilized this divide. It is in this context that we can understand the effect of the intervention of Quebec Premier François Legault at the beginning of the campaign. The key factor was the Quebec secularism law, which by then had entered the federal campaign.

Yves-François Blanchet’s Autonomist Strategy

The election of Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec in 2018 marked a turning point in Quebec’s political life. It was a real realignment election where the divide between Yes and No over independence was shattered. Putting this question on the back burner did not mean that Quebecers were no longer concerned about their identity. Quite the contrary: the CAQ government’s autonomist vision is expressed in Quebec assertiveness within Canada, and is widely supported by voters. Legault is more popular today than on the day he was elected and remains the premier with the strongest support in Canada.

The erosion of the Yes-No cleavage on independence did not happen overnight. The Parti Québécois has experienced a gradual electoral decline, while in the 2011 and 2015 federal elections the Bloc Québécois failed to achieve recognized party status. What we saw manifested was the volatility at the federal level of Quebec voters, who tried the NDP in 2011 and the Liberals in 2015.

Does the return of the Bloc Québécois herald the return of the good old cleavage associated with Quebec’s independence? Is the Bloc’s new status, as some have suggested, the result of voters’ remorse for relegating the Parti Québécois to the position of fourth party in the National Assembly? On the contrary.

In an attempt to win Quebec votes, both the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois ran autonomist campaigns. Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet did not campaign on independence. Save for a few days prior to the vote, he actually avoided talking about it at all, in stark contrast with former leader Martine Ouellet. The new leader of the Bloc focused primarily on issues emphasized by the Legault government.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, little known in Quebec at the beginning of the campaign, also took the autonomist path. He made his party highly competitive, with some pre-campaign polls placing the Conservatives first in the hearts of Quebecers. But during the campaign he proved unable to define himself on this axis, allowing his opponents to focus attention on his pro-life position on abortion. In Quebec, social conservatism has no following. When he tried to refocus on his party’s openness to Quebec autonomy in an important speech just a few days before the vote, it was too late.

Does the Bloc’s resurgence indicate a new passion among Quebecers? I see it more as the result of a process of elimination. Justin Trudeau disappointed and could not win enough seats to have a majority. Jagmeet Singh was unable to reverse the NDP’s downward trend, leaving his Quebec deputy, Alexandre Boulerice, as the only survivor of the 2011 orange wave. And Andrew Scheer was unable to connect with the Quebec electorate.

This campaign did not arouse passion in Quebec. With the independence issue put aside, the Bloc Québécois has once again become a safe haven for many voters. With 32 of the 78 Quebec seats, the Bloc made an important comeback and will be the third party in the House. Still, it was unable to win more seats than the Liberals. With 35 seats, Justin Trudeau can say that his party finished first in Quebec.

But that does not mean he will be able to claim that his party speaks for Quebec. At the birth of the Bloc Québécois in 1990, one of its objectives was precisely to avoid the trap of “double legitimacy” as it existed under Justin Trudeau’s father. By winning a majority of seats in Quebec, Pierre Elliott Trudeau claimed to be able to speak for Quebec just as much as René Lévesque did. Justin Trudeau, with a minority of seats, won’t be able to make such a claim.

With an autonomist mandate, Yves-François Blanchet will not be able to interpret a vote for the Bloc as a vote for independence. Still, Bloc supporters hope to win support for the cause by drawing attention to any instances of the incoming government encroaching on Quebec’s jurisdictions. Will Justin Trudeau stop giving the Bloc oxygen? It doesn’t seem to be in his blood.

The 2018 Quebec election is an important moment in Quebec’s Grand éclatement. In 2016, Marie Grégoire, Youri Rivest and I wrote about this great splintering in a book titled Le cœur des Québécois. It did not take place overnight. Underlying this change – which has now taken the form of a fragmentation and realignment of political forces, with the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) replacing the Parti Québécois (PQ) – is a profound political transformation.

For the first time since 1976, a new party forms the government. For the first time in almost 40 years, Quebec independence was not a central issue in an election campaign. The PQ chose to postpone the independence debate to 2022, leaving only Québec Solidaire (QS) to bring up the question while stressing environmental and socioeconomic transformation. The election thus accelerated the great splintering of the party system by turning the page on a cleavage that for two generations cemented the electorate behind the Quebec Liberal Party on one side and the PQ on the other. But even if Quebec society has become more diverse and more fragmented, the election also showed that most Quebeckers remains deeply attached to their common identity and culture.

The CAQ was able to form a majority government, winning 74 seats with only 37 per cent of the vote, while the Liberals kept 31 seats with a historic low of 24 per cent. QS and the PQ battled for third place, with QS taking ten seats with 16 per cent of the vote, and the PQ also taking ten with 17 per cent.

Of the 125 members of the National Assembly, 67 were elected for the first time. This made room for the election of 52 women among the record number of women candidates. Less noticed was how the Québec political parties have fully integrated the new technologies at the organizational level. The use of digital tools has had an impact on party strategies and changed the relationship between parties and their activists.

The election of a new government from a political party that has existed for only seven years marks the end of an era.1 It has been suggested that this outcome can be explained by the outgoing Liberal government’s having been in power for almost 15 years, but deeper developments are involved. In this article I reflect on the underlying evolution of Quebec’s political dynamics, which set the stage for the new chapter that opened on October 1.

An unprecedented campaign

The election was the first to be held in accordance with the law on fixed election dates, so everyone was prepared. Triggered a week earlier than planned by Premier Philippe Couillard, the election campaign lasted 39 rather than 33 days. It can be divided into three stages. Starting with a lead in the polls, the Coalition Avenir Québec clearly won the precampaign, being present in the field all summer long. To avoid the perception of a Liberal-CAQ duel at the beginning of the race, the PQ responded with an energetic campaign with numerous rallies, putting the CAQ on the defensive. The CAQ faced a slump in support and then an apparent shift in voting intentions after the first leaders’ debate. However, this changed ten days before the election, when CAQ leader François Legault and Manon Massé of QS were perceived as winners of the last debate. This resulted in a final trend: a fight for first place between CAQ and the Liberals while the PQ was relegated to fighting QS for third.

Apart from party standings, the role of women in the campaign and their success also marks an important change, with a record number of women elected. At 42 per cent women, the National Assembly of Quebec is in the elite 40 per cent–plus parity zone for the first time. In 2014, women represented only 27.2 per cent of members elected to the National Assembly, down from 2012, which set the previous record at 32.7 per cent.2 This change is largely attributable to the parties’ desire to recruit more women candidates, and their being nominated in winnable districts. Thus, the Coalition Avenir Québec and Québec Solidaire presented more women than men (52 per cent for the CAQ and 52.8 per cent for QS) while the PQ presented 40.8 per cent women candidates and the Liberals presented 44 per cent.3 In 2014, the percentage of women candidates was only 29.6 per cent.4

As for diversity, here again QS and the CAQ stand out, with 10 per cent of candidates from visible minorities,5 nearly twice the proportion of Parti Québécois and Liberal candidates. Five elected CAQ members are immigrants, and the CAQ now has the most elected members from visible minorities in the National Assembly with four – elected in mostly francophone constituencies. Dr. Lionel Carmant, Haitian-born neurologist and Professor of Neuroscience and Pediatrics at Université de Montréal, was elected in Taillon, PQ founder René Lévesque’s former riding on the South Shore of Montreal. Nadine Girault is also of Haitian descent and won in Bertrand, 100 kilometres north of Montréal. Elected in Sainte-Rose, in the city of Laval northwest of Montreal, Christopher Skeete, whose father came from Trinidad and Tobago, is seen as a representative of the English-speaking community. Born in Morocco, Samuel Poulin was elected in Beauce-Sud, a rural riding, with nearly two thirds of the votes.

In the wake of the changes observed in the United States and at the Canadian federal level, this was also the first Quebec election in which the electoral machines of the four main parties fully integrated digital tools and the analysis of big data into their campaigns. Increased use of new technologies by the political parties significantly changed party strategies and operations.

This manifested itself in three ways. First, in terms of advertising, a significant part of their budget was moved to social networks. Concretely, right from their first election announcements, the parties focused as never before on specific segments of the electorate with targeted measures, notably the Liberals’ promise to provide separated parents with two health cards for their children and the Parti Québécois’s commitment in launching its campaign to offering lunch boxes to school-aged children. “Retail politics” has arrived, with political parties using sophisticated databases to mobilize their voters on election day. Note that these tools did not translate into an increase in overall electoral participation. Rather, they have led to a deemphasis of the role of party activists. Indeed, the parties with the most active members finished far behind in terms of votes cast.

The end of the Yes-No cleavage

The PQ leader made his bed during his party’s leadership race in 2016. By putting la question nationale off to the 2022 vote, Jean-François Lisée confirmed that the issue would be removed from the 2018 election campaign. In doing so, he accelerated a phenomenon already well underway: the erosion of the Yes-No cleavage as a fundamental element in Quebec elections.6 It is worth looking more closely at the four long-term developments underlying the erosion: the fragmentation of partisan politics, the decline of support for pro-sovereignty groups, the political socialization of the new generations, and the end of polarization around the national question as the primary political cleavage .

The Quebec party system has been changing since 2003, when a multiparty system emerged. Since then Quebec has had an open political system, one the dean of Quebec political scientists, Vincent Lemieux, characterized as a system in which the political parties that did not finish first or second can expect to win a total of more than 20 per cent of the vote.7 Figure 1 illustrates the fragmentation of the party system over time. It also allows us to visualize the decline of bipartisanship, in contrast with the period of alternation between the PQ and the Liberals from 1976 to 2003. Having finished third behind Action Démocratique du Québec in 2007, then fourth in 2018 (one seat behind QS), the PQ no longer occupies the status of a dominant party. A new chapter in Quebec’s politics now opens, in which the Yes-No duality will be no longer be at the heart of political debates in the coming years. This splintering is also reflected in the greater likelihood of minority governments. Quebec elected minority governments in 2007 and 2012 – before that there had been no minority government since 1878. Nevertheless, in 2018, this fragmentation made it possible to form a majority government with 37 per cent of the vote.

The decline in support for independence since 1995 is also well documented. The work of Simon Langlois is revealing.8 He notes a steady decline in support for sovereignty among the population most likely to support independence, the francophone working class. Moreover, support for independence is even weaker among Generation Z voters (those born after 1995). An Ipsos poll published in September 2018 for a symposium on youth and politics showed that only 19 per cent were in favour of independence.9 The aging of the indépendantistes is also confirmed by the results of the 2018 CBC Vote Compass.10 The Vote Compass also showed that despite QS’s sovereigntist position, its voters remain largely divided on the issue, and are typically drawn to it for other reasons.

The decline of the Yes-No divide can be associated with the political socialization of new generations. Unlike their elders, who were mainly introduced to politics through debates on the national question, these new voters were politically socialized by new issues.11 This was particularly the case with the 2012 student crisis, which opposed much more than two visions of university funding. There were also two visions of the role and level of intervention of the Quebec state. On one side, the carrés rouges demanded free university education, and on the other, the carrés verts favoured increases in (comparatively low) tuition. In interpreting the data, the same Ipsos survey concluded, “While the upheavals of the debate on the constitutional future of Quebec have marked the political initiation of generations of Quebeckers, 18–25 year olds first cite the 2012 student crisis when they analyze their own political awakening.” Overall, it is clear that it is on the left-right, rather than sovereigntist-federalist, axis that much of generation Z was politically socialized.

As for the salience of the independence issue for how people vote, Jean-François Lisée accurately described the mood of Quebeckers in the days following the defeat of the PQ in 2014 when he wrote that “Quebecers will close the doors of power to a PQ that would like to put the state in the service of its option.”12 In fact, data from 2016 indicate that independence was the most important issue for only 3 per cent of respondents when casting their vote.13 Health, the economy and education were by far the most important themes. This was also the case two years later during the 2018 election.14

New structural cleavages

The decline in the Yes-No divide, however, does not mean that Quebeckers are less nationalistic than before when it comes to seeking greater autonomy for Quebec. Recent surveys show that more than 20 years after the 1995 referendum, this remains the political option most Quebeckers prefer.15 Looking at attitudes more closely, we observe a transformation of the foundations and elements on which Quebec nationalism is now based. The data from a CROP-L’Actualité survey published in 2016 illustrate this change well.16 Respondents associated successful integration of newcomers and the enhancement of Quebeckers’ international success with a more contemporary Quebec nationalism. In contrast, the conflict with an English-speaking elite and the holding of a referendum on independence were associated with the time of the first election of the PQ in 1976.

On the party side, the Parti Québécois is clearly the main victim of the erosion of the Yes-No cleavage and the fragmentation of the party system. On its right, the Coalition Avenir Québec becomes the main vehicle of Quebec nationalism. On its left, the growth of Québec Solidaire undermines the traditional hegemonic role of the PQ on the issue of independence. As it celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding in October 2018, the PQ faces an uphill battle to regain its status as a major party.

This takes place in the context of a political reality in Quebec that is more complex than before. Fracture lines have multiplied. The end of the Yes-No cleavage leaves room for new divisions. It leaves the left-right axis on socioeconomic issues to structure the political debate, along with an emerging environmental cleavage. On the nationalism-cosmopolitanism axis, opposing political visions face each other, notably on the integration of newcomers and the language question. The linguistic divide remains important even though independence was put on hold. Though turnout was low among allophones and anglophones, they voted overwhelmingly for the Liberal Party, while francophones overwhelmingly rejected the Couillard government. By the end of the campaign, polls even ranked Couillard’s Liberals in fourth place among French-speaking voters. When the votes were counted, the Liberals had the worst results in their history.

Will electoral reform change things?

The transformation of a party system is not a frequent event. It implies a reconfiguration of political forces. It is also reflected in the emergence and decline of certain issues. That’s what happened in Quebec on October 1. The splintering was twofold. On the one hand, there has been a fragmentation of the francophone electorate, now represented via a multiparty system in the National Assembly. There has also been a fragmentation of the sovereigntist movement. The dominant position of the PQ is now contested by a new player on the left, Québec Solidaire, leaving the Coalition Avenir Québec as the main autonomist party in the National Assembly.

Will this realignment of political forces be sustainable? Quebec has previously experienced two periods of transformation of its party system. The first occurred during the Depression of the 1930s, when the Conservative Party merged with Liberal dissidents to form the Union Nationale. The second materialized out of the Quiet Revolution: Liberal dissidents who had come together in the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association merged with the Ralliement National and most of the members of the Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale to form the Parti Québécois. This new party imposed the Yes-No cleavage on Quebec politics for more than a generation. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that the PQ has had to pay the price for the erosion of this cleavage. History may record 2018, like 1936 and 1976, as a realignment election.

There is one important caveat. The victorious CAQ made a joint commitment with QS and the PQ to reform the electoral system in time for the 2022 election, which was confirmed by Legault on the day after the election. A proportional voting system would institutionalize the fragmentation of the party system. Parti Québécois leaders may see at as the key to their remaining a major party, but they will have to contend with the Liberals who indicated a few days before the election that they planned to oppose such a reform by any and all means.17

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