Thursday, November 5, 2015

Four Quebec by-elections a mid-term test for Couillard and Péladeau

Quebecers in four ridings will be heading to the polls yet again on Monday, as four by-elections are being held in the province to fill vacancies in the National Assembly. And based on the history of these four ridings, the results may provide a telling glimpse of where voters stand in Quebec about 19 months into Philippe Couillard's mandate.

Two of the by-elections are being held in the Greater Montreal region, while the other two are being held in the eastern part of the province. They each have something for the four major parties in Quebec.

In Beauce-Sud, a riding hugging the border with the United States and anchored by the town of St-Georges, the Liberals are hoping Paul Busque can hold the seat after the departure of Robert Dutil, a cabinet minister during Jean Charest's government. They will face their biggest challenge from Tom Redmond, a municipal councilor for St-Georges and the Coalition Avenir Québec's candidate.

At the west end of Laval lies the riding of Fabre, vacated by the Liberals' Gilles Ouimet. Monique Sauvé will be looking to hold it for the party, which should not prove difficult.

At the other end of the province in the Côte-Nord, including the towns of Forestville and Baie-Comeau, is the riding of René-Léveseque. The Parti Québécois's Marjolain Dufour gave up the seat, and the PQ has put up Martin Ouellet to retain it. Though it is unlikely the PQ would lose this riding, the biggest challenge will likely come from Baie-Comeau municipal councilor Karine Otis of the Liberals.

The last riding, the working class Montreal riding of Saint-Henri–Sainte-Anne, was left vacant by the departure of former cabinet minister Marguerite Blais of the Liberals. The only real 'star' candidate of these by-elections is Dominique Anglade, former president of the CAQ, who the Liberals are hoping can keep the riding for their party. The PQ's Gabrielle Lemieux will likely put up the biggest fight, though Québec Solidaire is gunning for a strong performance with their candidate Marie-Eve Rancourt, who ran for the party here in 2008.

These four ridings, individually, are not particularly interesting. The smallest margin of victory in these four in 2014 was 12.3 points in Beauce-Sud, while the other three were won by margins of 30 points or more. Only in Beauce-Sud is an upset a serious possibility, as the margin has averaged just 5.4 points in the riding over the last three elections. The average margin has been 15 points or more in the other ridings.

Together, however, these ridings are quite interesting. That is because they have actually managed to be ridings that, combined, matched the province-wide outcomes quite closely.

As you can see in the table above, the average result in these four ridings has never differed very greatly from the overall results in the province. They have been very close for the Parti Québécois in particular, which means these by-elections may serve as a good indication of how Pierre-Karl Péladeau is doing as the PQ's new leader.

The average result across these four ridings may be the most interesting number to look at on Monday night. But let's return to each of the four races.

Though attention has primarily been on the race in Saint-Henri–Sainte-Anne, the by-election in Beauce-Sud could prove the closest. It was a very tight race between the Liberals and the CAQ (represented here by the ADQ's results in 2008) in 2008 and 2012, and was actually won by the ADQ in 2007. The CAQ's vote here has slipped a little over the last few elections, but it is nevertheless robust. 

The Liberals have dipped in the polls since the 2014 election, which may open up an opportunity for the CAQ here. But the CAQ has also dropped in support, primarily due to the arrival of Péladeau on the scene. That still gives the Liberals the best odds of holding on, but the CAQ's hopes are lying in Beauce-Sud.

There is little doubt that Fabre is a riding the Liberals should have no trouble retaining. They have easily won the riding over the last three elections, and saw their vote increase significantly in Fabre in 2014. The PQ's share has dropped consistently here over the last few campaigns, while the CAQ's strong showing in 2012 was due in part to the candidacy of Anglade, who is no longer available to the party. The ADQ did come relatively close here in 2007, but even that was when the Liberals were in a much poorer state than they are currently.

Polls suggest the Liberals are doing very well in the Montreal region, so this riding should hold firm for them. The question may be to see whether the PQ's Jibril Akaaboune Le-François can make some inroads in order to demonstrate that Péladeau's PQ can woo voters around the island of Montreal.

If Fabre is safe territory for the Liberals, then René-Lévesque is a stronghold for the PQ. With the brief exception of an ADQ by-election victory in 2002, the PQ has held this riding without interruption since 1994. In the 1995 sovereignty referendum, almost three out of every four voters in the riding opted for independence.

Support for the PQ has been over 50% in each of the last four elections, including the 2007 and 2014 campaigns when the party had the worst provincial performances in its history. Even in 2014, Dufour won the riding by just over 33 points. Considering that the Liberals are not in a better position in the polls today than they were a year ago, it is extremely unlikely that they can overcome that gap. In fact, it will be a disappointment for the PQ and Péladeau if they do not improve upon the 55% that Dufour managed in 2014.

Since its creation in 1994, the riding of Saint-Henri–Sainte-Anne has only ever voted for the Quebec Liberals. Any change from that would be a tremendous upset.

The Liberals won this riding by just over 30 points in 2014, and still managed to win it by just over six points in 2012. Even under the best of circumstances, it is a stretch to imagine the PQ being able to wrest this riding away from the Liberals — particularly with Anglade on the ballot. 

But the riding does serve as a bit of a test for the PQ and QS. For the results to be good news for the Parti Québécois, they would like to see their numbers be back over 30%. More interesting might be the numbers for Québec Solidaire, which has managed double-digits in this riding over the last two elections. The party is also doing quite well in the polls, registering as high as 13% province-wide and nearly 20% in the Montreal region. A strong sign that QS is heading in the right direction would see its results top 20% in Saint-Henri–Sainte-Anne, though that might be a high bar to meet.

The safe money in these four by-elections would be on the four incumbent parties holding on. The CAQ could potentially pull off a victory in Beauce-Sud, while if things go well for the PQ they could get the Liberals nervous in Fabre and Saint-Henri–Sainte-Anne. On the whole, however, the defeat of any incumbent party would be big news.

So instead the interest in these four by-elections will be on the overall performance of the parties, and whether they can out-perform expectations. They will primarily serve as tests to Couillard and Péladeau. Is the Liberal government in trouble or on the right track? Has Péladeau's leadership of the PQ led to any real gains for the party? Real ballots, and not just polls, will give us a clue on Monday night.