Is Québec's Conservative party gaining ground?
As the Québec election campaign enters its third week, the Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ) still appears well positioned to win a second majority mandate. But the CAQ might not be the only party celebrating on Oct. 3. Even if they do not form the next government, Éric Duhaime appears well on his way to establishing the return of the Conservatives to Québec’s political scene and potentially winning at least one seat for his party in the National Assembly.
The Conservative brand in Québec has deep roots. Starting off as the dominant party at the time of Canadian Confederation, the provincial Conservative party entered a period of slow decline in Québec after the death of Louis Riel, before being entirely displaced in 1935 by the Union Nationale. The Parti conservateur du Québec (PCQ), which was re-founded in 2009, remained a marginal party until now, winning few votes and never coming close to getting any candidates elected as a Member of the National Assembly (MNA).
Where is this Conservative momentum coming from?
By making skilful use of traditional as well as online media networks, taking advantage of frustrations with the province’s COVID-19 response to attract donors and volunteers, and stealing an MNA from the CAQ, Duhaime was able to create winning conditions for his troops before the official 2022 Québec election campaign even began.
The PCQ campaign has been building considerable momentum ever since. For starters, the signs of Conservative candidates were the first to be installed after the election was called. Aesthetically comparable to those of their rivals, they are often better positioned and more numerous. This shows significant financial and human resources and, above all, a good degree of political organization. The party’s current crop of candidates also demonstrates more potential than in the past. While a few have made headlines with controversial remarks, these missteps have been a bit easier for the Conservatives to brush aside than in past elections.
A key strategy that the Conservatives have been using to increase their relevance during this election campaign has been to promote themselves to English-speaking voters as a party that will protect their rights. Speaking in Montreal this past week about the benefits of bilingualism behind a banner reading "Bill 96" with a slash through it, Duhaime pitched a "new paradigm": he promised that if elected his party would honour historic English-speaking rights by repealing the controversial language legislation put forward by the outgoing CAQ government, while protecting the French language in Québec through immigration policies. Taking direct aim at the Liberal party base, Duhaime said that English-speakers should not have to be hostage to a single party that takes them for granted. He said he grew up with a paradigm that meant the options for voting for the interests of Québec were either to vote "yes" for Parti Quebecois or "no" for the Liberals, but that a new reality is coming and “October third could be a great historic election."
Are the Conservatives making a real mark?
The clearest indicator of the progress that the Conservatives have made becoming a serious political force in Québec has been their media presence in this election campaign. Most notably, for the first time since the advent of television, a Conservative representative will participate in the leaders' debates. The PCQ has also been enjoying a comparable level of media coverage to other parties throughout the campaign, and the party’s right-leaning commitments have not been resulting in much backlash.
The path for many of these positions was previously cleared by the CAQ, even if the party has since drifted closer to the centre to keeps its policies responsive to the realities of governing the province. For instance, the general population is now more open to considering a role for the responsible exploitation of natural gas and oil in Québec, and ending the government’s monopoly on the sale of alcohol in the province.
How big of a win could Conservatives achieve this election?
Hovering between 13% and 20% of voting intentions, the PCQ, which is often underestimated in the polls, is approaching the famous "pay zone", in which each 1% gain translates into the election of an additional MNA. If he succeeds in breaking through this zone, Duhaime could enter the National Assembly surrounded by a few colleagues, potentially making his victory a lasting one and establishing himself as a key player in the inevitable shake-up to come for Québec politics.
The CAQ, which until now has had no competition for the hearts of centre-right voters, will need to work harder to hang onto some of these supporters. François Legault's many nods to the right in recent days, from his travels to ridings fertile for the PCQ, to his commitments to further invest in private health care, seem to reveal that the outgoing premier is well aware of this new political reality.