Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Warning signals for all three big Quebec parties in four by-elections

As expected, the Quebec Liberals held their three ridings and the Parti Québécois its one in the four by-elections that occurred across the province yesterday. But the results were mixed for both parties, with the Liberals putting up big drops in support in two of their three wins while making a big gain in their one loss, while the Parti Québécois had its own drop in support where it was the incumbent and respectable increases in two of the ridings in which it came up short.

Moral and actual victories for both parties, then, if they want to look for them. But nothing for the Coalition Avenir Québec, except a new logo.

Turnout was poor in the two Montreal-area ridings, at just 24% in Saint-Henri–Sainte-Anne and 23% in Fabre. It was more within the norm for by-elections in René-Lévesque on the Côte-Nord (40%) and Beauce-Sud (43%).

The Liberals increased their vote share in Beauce-Sud, and widened their margin of victory over the CAQ by almost 14 points. At 55.9% support, Paul Busque's score was the best performance for the Liberals in this riding in 18 years. Tom Redmond captured 29.9% of the vote, the lowest number for the CAQ or its predecessor ADQ since 1998. Of note is the performance of Quebec's Conservative Party, which at 3% of the vote finished in fourth place ahead of Québec Solidaire.

Monique Sauvé of the Liberals took 44% of the vote in Fabre, a significant drop since 2014 but better than the party's performance in the riding in 2012. The PQ's Jibril Akaaboune Le-François captured 28.6% of the vote, a big increase from 2014 and a little better than 2012, but well below the 36.8% score the party managed in Fabre in 2008.

In the riding of René-Lévesque, the PQ's Martin Ouellet took 49% of the vote, the worst showing for the PQ in the riding since 2003. The Liberals' Karine Otis surprised with 39% of the vote, the biggest increase any party experienced in any of these four ridings. The last time the PLQ did that well was in 1989. Otis was also the only candidate to have an increase in raw vote totals, as she picked up 848 votes over the party's performance here in 2014. Either Liberal voters turned out, or Otis took a lot of the vote away from the CAQ, which experienced its only double-digit drop in vote share here.

Dominique Anglade managed to hold on to Saint-Henri–Sainte-Anne in what turned out to be the closest race of the night. At 38.6%, Anglade nearly matched the Liberals' performance here in 2012 — the last time the Liberals lost an election. The PQ's Gabrielle Lemieux jumped in support to 29.9%, though that was still below the party's performance here three years ago. The big surprise was Marie-Eve Rancourt of Québec Solidaire, who captured 20.7% of the vote, almost double the party's vote share in the last election. Nevertheless, her raw vote count was still down from 2014. The PQ will undoubtedly make some noise about the split of the vote in this riding, as it is the one in which the combined totals of the PQ and QS (two sovereigntist parties) would have been enough to defeat the Liberal candidate.

In my last analysis of these by-elections, I pointed out how these four ridings have, on average, tracked the province wide vote totals quite closely. If these four ridings are still bellwethers when combined, the results do not suggest that Philippe Couillard's Liberals are in much trouble. The party averaged 44.4% across these four ridings, compared to 28.6% for the PQ. That still means a Liberal majority government if those sorts of numbers were repeated on election night. The biggest change, then, would be in the CAQ's tremendous drop in support to just 13.8%.

The CAQ had the worst night, averaging a loss of 6.9 points across the four ridings. By-elections are often difficult for the CAQ, particularly in ridings where the party is not a factor. The ADQ also used to have this issue, so an argument could be made to shrug off their performances in three of these four ridings. But for the party to drop over eight points in Beauce-Sud, where the CAQ was the only other party with a chance to win the riding, is very problematic. And whereas the CAQ has been dropping support to the PQ at the provincial level, in this case it seems to have been primarily to the benefit of the Liberals. If the CAQ is not competitive in a riding like Beauce-Sud, they have few prospects for gains.

The drop in support for the Liberals in the two Montreal-area ridings was significant, and is perhaps something that could be a sign of a deeper problem for the Quebec Liberals in urban ridings. But in both cases the turnout was anemic, so it could have merely been the case that voters did not bother turning out to vote in by-elections that everyone considered a foregone conclusion.

The PQ's increase in both Fabre and Saint-Henri–Sainte-Anne is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but again the low turnout lessens the impact of the party's performance. More concerning for Pierre-Karl Péladeau should be the performance of the PQ in René-Lévesque, a riding the PQ routinely won with over 50% of the vote in bad elections. This is just the kind of riding that should be embracing the PQ if the party is heading in the right direction. Instead, the Liberals put up some big numbers in a riding that has traditionally not been friendly to them. There are some echoes of the federal Liberals' performance in Quebec in this: they took 29% of the vote and finished second in the riding of Manicouagan, of which René-Lévesque forms a part at the provincial level.

This is why the results are a mixed bag for both parties. The Liberals can be happy to see that their vote share, overall, hardly budged from their big victory last year. And the strong performance in the two rural ridings is a sign that the party is doing well among francophones. But their losses in the Montreal area, where perhaps the politics of austerity resonate more, show some underlying weakness in a traditionally safe area.

For the PQ, modest increases in the Montreal area is a positive sign for the party, but losses in a stronghold region of their own, particularly under a new leader, also suggests some underlying weaknesses.

Though François Legault certainly has reason to be concerned, both Couillard and Péladeau can breathe a sigh of relief with these results. They held their ridings and can each point to some strong second-place showings. But Fabre and Saint-Henri–Sainte-Anne indicate that Couillard can't get too comfortable, while René-Lévesque shows that Péladeau is far from following in the footsteps of that riding's namesake.

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