Smart money is against an early federal election

Leadership is the issue - the leadership of Boisclair, who is slipping in the polls

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The Gazette, Monday, March 5, 2007

For once, a Quebec election isn't about a question of country. It's about leadership - Andre Boisclair's leadership. As a result, we could be looking at a realignment election, one in which the Parti Quebecois falls to third place behind Mario Dumont and the Action democratique du Quebec.

The latest Leger Marketing poll for The Gazette and le Journal de Montreal confirms Dumont's growth at the expense of Boisclair. The Liberals have a seven-point lead over the PQ, 36-29, but the ADQ is right there at 25 per cent. Because of a more efficient distribution of Dumont's small-town and rural vote, he could well become leader of the opposition. But because this is uncharted territory, there is no reliable seat model.

It's no mystery why Dumont continues to grow - the voters don't think Boisclair can lead Quebec. Asked who would be best premier, 30 per cent said Jean Charest, 26 per cent said Dumont, and only 19 per cent chose Boisclair. Fully 30 per cent of PQ supporters said they would vote for someone else, and most of them are going to Dumont. There isn't a single region of the province where Boisclair wins the leadership question. He trails his party by 10 points and his option by nearly 25 points.

Why are soft PQ voters parking with Dumont? Well, he's familiar and friendly. He was with the Yes side in 1995, but was the first to call for a moratorium on referendums. Though he's only 36, this is his fourth campaign. He represents a blue tradition of calling for more powers for Quebec within the Canadian federation. Plus, he's been enjoying a free ride, surfing with photo-ops and handshakes at retail malls and daycares. As for the cost of his promises, he says he'll get back to you after the federal budget, when he's seen the fiscal imbalance money, and he's actually getting away with it.

He's getting away with it because he's not the issue, Boisclair is.

Dumont is now growing at the expense of the PQ in the east end of Montreal, one of the PQ's two strongest regions in the province. In the other, the kingdom of Saguenay-Lac St. Jean, the Liberals are tied with the PQ and could win as many as four out of five seats in the region.

Dumont's growth to 22 per cent in the east end has vaulted the Liberals to a narrow 32-29 lead over the PQ. This raises the unthinkable prospect of the PQ losing the East Island.

The Liberals enjoy a predictable 45-point lead on the West Island, but also lead in Laval by 15 points, 43-28 over the PQ, pointing to a sweep of all five suburban ridings. The Liberals also lead on the South Shore, the Lower St. Lawrence and Gaspe, and are in a three-way race with the PQ and ADQ in Quebec City. Only in Abitibi in northwestern Quebec does the PQ lead in the race for the region's four seats.

The only good news for Boisclair in this poll is that 45 per cent of voters say they could still change their minds. And there are still three weeks to go. Boisclair could be the beneficiary of a sympathy vote over comments made by a Saguenay talk radio host who called him and his candidate in Jonquiere a couple of "tapettes." On the other hand, this despicable remark might have called unwelcome attention to his sexual orientation in Quebec profond, a much less tolerant place than cosmopolitan Montreal.

This happened on the same day Boisclair said if the PQ lost a third referendum, he saw no reason why there shouldn't be a fourth. Perhaps he was only trying to motivate his hardline base, les purs et durs. But Charest pounced gleefully all over this. "If Andre Boisclair says he wants a referendum as fast as possible, and referendums until he wins," Charest told a cheering crowd in Asbestos, "then Quebecers on March 26 have the right to say no to a referendum and yes to the Liberal team, yes to health care, yes to education."

Beyond a realignment of party brands, the prospect of Dumont finishing second, or even making a strong third-place showing, has profound implications for the public policy debate in Quebec. If, for example, Dumont held the balance of power in a minority legislature, that would force Charest to move farther to the right in the re-engineering of the state.

The PQ, meanwhile, would be left to consolidate its sovereignist and socialist base on the left. This would really galvanize the debate between the lucides and the solidaires.

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