November 22, 2018

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A Center-Right Party Decisively Wins Quebec Vote

A Center-Right Party Decisively Wins Quebec Vote
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Voters in Quebec on Monday selected a relatively new center-right party to take control of the provincial government, in the first election campaign in decades that was not defined by the question of whether Quebec should secede from Canada.

The Coalition Avenir Québec, or the C.A.Q., which was founded in 2011, presented itself as neither favoring the current arrangement with Canada, which is the position of the Quebec Liberal Party, nor breaking away from Canada, which the Parti Québécois had long favored.

Instead François Legault, the party’s leader, describes the party’s approach as “nationalism,” which he defines as putting Quebec’s interests first while remaining in Canada.

Unofficial returns indicate that the C.A.Q. captured 73 of the legislature’s 125 seats, a decisive victory that was not forecast by public opinion polls. It means that Quebec will not be governed by a Liberal or Parti Québécois government for the first time since 1966.

“Today we made history,” Mr. Legault told a rally of supporters in Quebec City late Monday. “Today there are many Quebecers who put aside a debate that’s been dividing us for 50 years.”

Mr. Legault, 61, is an accountant who founded a successful charter airline before entering politics. While he held cabinet posts under the Parti Québécois, he insists that his interest in separatism is now firmly in his past.

While the Parti Québécois was created with the goal of making Quebec a sovereign nation, its current leader, Jean-François Lisée, vowed long before the campaign started not to hold another referendum on leaving Canada until after the next provincial election in 2022.

Eric Montigny, a political scientist at Laval University in Quebec City, said that removing that question led to “a great fracturing” of the Quebec electorate and a campaign in which no single issue was dominant.

Various issues were floated before and during the campaign, but none appeared to catch the attention of voters and at least one significantly backfired.

Mr. Legault, the leader of the C.A.Q., tried to use the issue of immigration to distinguish his party from both the Liberals and the Parti Québécois. While immigration generally enjoys strong support in most of Canada, Christian Bourque, executive vice president of Léger, a polling firm, said that his company’s surveys show that Quebecers are roughly divided on the issue.

The C.A.Q. plan was aimed at voters who are critical of immigration, with Mr. Legault proposing a reduction of 20 percent in the number of immigrants allowed into Quebec. He also called for testing immigrants for their fluency in French and on their “values” after three years in the province. He suggested that those who failed the test would be deported.

To Mr. Bourque, the proposal appeared to be a roundabout way to implicitly revive French-speaking Quebec’s identity as an issue, even with separatism off the table for now.

“They wanted the survival of the French language to be associated with immigration,” he said.

But Mr. Legault repeatedly stumbled when journalists asked questions about his plan. He frequently confused federal and provincial responsibilities over immigration in responding to the media, while doing little to clarify how his system would, or could, work.

Mr. Bourque said that Mr. Legault had also misread shifts in attitudes toward immigrants in several regions of the province. Many voters in and around Quebec City, a generally conservative region, were once unsympathetic to immigration. But the province’s low birthrate means that it is facing a shortage of workers.

Mr. Legault did, however, have more success with another issue.

“The C.A.Q. were able to impose the view that the Liberals have been around for 15 years and to make it an election of change,” Professor Montigny said.

Some voters in Montreal echoed that sentiment on Monday.

“I feel like the Liberals were good managers, but they didn’t care about poor people,” said Edouard Lachappelle, 75, a former music teacher.

At first glance the Liberals’ record in office might have swept the party back in power. Philippe Couillard, the provincial party’s leader, inherited what was generally viewed as an out-of-control government debt, but he went on to post two years of budget surpluses. Quebec’s unemployment rate of 5.6 percent is comfortably below the national average of 6 percent, and the construction of apartments, both condominiums and rentals, in Montreal is at a pace not seen since the late 1980s.

In the lead-up to the campaign, Mr. Couillard offered expansive spending promises in key areas like health care. But, Mr. Bourque said, that did not offset bitter memories many Quebecers hold of the austerity program that allowed Mr. Couillard to eliminate the province’s deficit.

“Even though the situation got a lot better, a lot of Quebecers feel that the Liberals are promising to give the money back they took two years ago,” Mr. Bourque said.

Although Mr. Coulliard, a former brain surgeon and professor who left medicine for politics, is widely viewed as honest, many voters have not forgotten the widespread and sometimes extraordinary corruption related to fund-raising and government contracts under earlier Liberal provincial governments.

“The party is outdated and linked to too many corruption scandals,” Kathleen Veilleux, a mother of two young children, said in Montreal’s Plateau neighborhood on Monday. “I don’t feel like the people in this party are honest.”

But Mr. Couillard’s fiscal record made it difficult for Mr. Legault to present a distinctive platform for the C.A.Q., particularly on economic issues.

“It was three shades of beige when it came to the platforms of the three major parties,” Mr. Bourque said.

That was not the case for Québec Solidaire, the far-left party for whom Ms. Veilleux voted on Monday. The group, which partly grew out of widespread student protests in 2012, has an unabashedly far-left platform that calls for the province to take control of banks and natural resource companies and that promised free education from preschool to graduate school.

Its supporters appear to be young Quebecers who historically would have voted for the Parti Québécois, which has become essentially a movement of aging baby boomers.

The unofffical returns gave the Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire each 10 seats, not enough for either to be officially recognized as parties in the legislature. For the Parti Québécois, it marked a new low point in a long decline that began after the failure of the second referendum on whether to leave Canada, which was held in 1995.

Adding to the humilation, a Québec Solidaire candidate defeated Mr. Lisée, the Parti Québécois leader, in his Montreal district.

“The Parti Québécois is going to be 50 years old in October,” Professor Montigny said. “It’s having the sort of crisis some people do when they turn that age.”

Follow Ian Austen on Twitter: @ianrausten

Jasmin Lavoie contributed reporting.



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