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.