Watching the current electoral campaign in Quebec, it’s quite remarkable how much the political landscape has changed. Whereas in years past the central question was Quebec’s place in Canada, the conversation has now shifted to the vitality of French and cultural mores in general. Although part of this shift was certainly organic, as the people of Quebec tired of endless debates about referendums, François Legault proved very apt at measuring the pulse of the population. Incredibly, even potential pandemic responses have been largely eclipsed by cultural issues. Given that the past three winters have been heavily impacted by the pandemic and the ensuing health regulations, that Covid death rates are higher now than they were at this time last year, and that we have no guarantee that Covid won’t have our hospitals on the brink of collapse throughout the winter, the complete absence of this topic during the campaign speaks to Mr. Legault’s remarkable skills at shaping the debate.
His personal prowess in this area aside, something that works significantly in his favour is that his party is completely unified behind him. This is natural, because he created the CAQ. Other premieres have not been so lucky. Most notorious is the history of the Parti Québecois, caught up in seemingly endless infighting since shortly after its creation in the 1970s.
Generally, leaders of major parties have a very hard time surviving electoral defeat. Mr. Legault was able to do so when his party was small and appealed to a relatively small slice of the electorate. Yet no leader of a major party has survived electoral defeat in Quebec since Jean Charest in 1998, when he won the popular vote but where the PQ managed to form a majority government, one of the strangest outcomes in Canada’s electoral history. Whether Mr. Legault will still find his party unified behind him should his popularity fall is anyone’s guess.
The same dynamics tend to play out at the municipal and federal levels. Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin created the first and only municipal party that Gatineau has seen, and had firm control of it until he decided to retire from politics. In Montreal leaders of municipal parties tend to lose their jobs after an electoral defeat. On the federal level the same pattern has held. Recently Pierre Poilievre won the conservative leadership as the first choice of 70% of party members who cast a vote, equaling the score of Stephen Harper in 2003 and approaching the near 80% that Justin Trudeau received in the Liberal Party leadership campaign of 2013. Such a score enabled Stephen Harper to survive electoral defeat in 2004 and go on to win a minority government in 2006. Justin Trudeau has also had the opportunity to reshape his party and govern without significant internal bickering, something that no Liberal leader had benefited from since his father more than thirty years earlier. Exactly how much Pierre Poilievre will be able to reshape his party, and whether he will get a second chance should he lose the next election, is an open question.