Polls show the Coalition Avenir Québec in position to coast to a second majority government Monday, but political observers say there is still plenty to watch for on election night -- in particular the profound political shift reflected in the battle for official Opposition.
Thierry Giasson, director of the political science department at Université Laval, says CAQ Leader François Legault has maintained his lead despite lacklustre debate performances and a "catastrophic" campaign in which he struggled to defend his record.
"It wasn't a good campaign for François Legault on pretty much every front," he said in a recent interview. Legault was forced to apologize twice during the campaign: once for comments linking immigration to "violence" and "extremism," and again after stating that the problems that led to an Atikamekw woman's 2020 death at a Joliette hospital had been "resolved."
His comments drew a rebuke from Joyce Echaquan's husband and the late woman's community, who noted that the racism and prejudice that contributed to her death are far from over.
Last week, Legault rebuked his immigration minister for claiming that 80 per cent of immigrants to the province "don't work" or speak French, and the CAQ leader faced heat of his own for saying it would be "suicidal" to the Quebec nation if immigration levels were raised.
"They are lucky, because they started with an enormous lead," Giasson said of the CAQ, "but it's good (for them) that the campaign isn't longer."
Despite the campaign missteps, Legault is benefiting from a strong reserve of "sympathy and goodwill" that he cultivated during the last years of managing the pandemic, Giasson said, adding that Quebecers have tended to grant parties more than one mandate.
The CAQ leader is also being served by -- and contributing to -- the narrative that none of the other parties could effectively govern the province, Giasson said. "Maybe that's the only success of François Legault's campaign: to discredit the alternatives campaigning against him."
On Friday, Legault told reporters that the ballot box question is, "Who has the best team to govern?" The premier said that while the five leaders grab the most media attention, the teams behind them are key.
"Ask yourselves tomorrow morning, who would be minister of finance? Who would be minister of health? ... It takes a solid economic team to transform the Quebec economy into a green economy ... to make the health system more efficient."
Poll aggregator website QC125.com projects the possibility of a CAQ majority at over 99 per cent, even as the party's polling numbers have slowly dropped below 40 per cent. The Liberals, Québec solidaire, the Conservatives and the Parti Québécois are all polling at around 14 to 17 per cent.
Geneviève Tellier, a political studies professor at the University of Ottawa, says there appears to be little appetite for change among the Quebec population. She attributes that in part to the fact that Legault’s government has been in power just four years, as well as to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The true option is, 'Do we continue with the government that we know will be there if another major crisis occurs, or do we take a chance by going with the unknown?'” she said, noting that the other leaders are relatively new to their positions.
The experts agreed that the most interesting battle is the one for official Opposition in a province where, before Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec arrived on the scene in 2011, elections were for decades two-party battles between the Liberals and the PQ.
Of the four main parties seeking to unseat the CAQ, only the PQ has shown a noticeable rise in support in the polls since the election was called, reflecting what Tellier and Giasson described as a positive, ideas-focused campaign by leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon.
Tellier said the most striking aspect of the campaign has been the fact that, for the first time, five parties have managed to gain significant public support — something she thinks is ultimately good for democracy.
"There are some left-wing parties, right-wing parties and so there are debates that force the voter to think about the different propositions and to position themselves,” she said.
With the issue of Quebec sovereignty largely taking a backseat, the campaign's focus has shifted to inflation and the cost of living, as well as the environment, the experts said.
The Liberals, Coalition Avenir Québec and Conservative party have all promised substantial tax cuts if elected, while Québec solidaire has promised to suspend the sales tax on some essential items and raise the minimum wage.
Éric Montigny, a political science professor at Université Laval, said there could be some surprises on election night, even if a Legault victory appears all but certain. He said he's especially interested in the fate of the once-dominant Liberals, whose impregnable strongholds on the Island of Montreal have become "houses of cards."
Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade, Conservative Leader Éric Duhaime and the PQ's Plamondon are all in tight races in their own ridings, while Québec solidaire's election-night success depends on motivating young voters, who are traditionally more reluctant to cast ballots.
He said some ridings are also seeing tight three-way races, which makes them particularly hard to call. "When there are several competitive parties, there can be surprises," he said.