Quebec's watershed election

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The National Post, Friday, March 23, 2007

The electoral map of Quebec divides into four area codes: 514 in Montreal, 450 in the bedroom communities surrounding the island, 819 in the Eastern Townships, Laurentians and Outaouais, and 418 in the rest of the province, including Quebec City, eastern Quebec and the Saguenay.

Next Monday, 514 and 819 will vote predominantly Liberal, with pockets of strength for the Parti Quebecois (PQ) in East End Montreal and the lower Laurentians. Mario Dumont willmake a big breakthrough in 418, probably sweeping the Quebec City region. The question of whether the province will have a majority or minority government will play out in 450, the suburban ring around Montreal.

Themagic number for a majority is 63 ridings in the 125-seat National Assembly. Only once since Confederation, and then only briefly, in 1878-79, has there ever been a minority government in Quebec. Next Monday could yield a second.

The Liberals figure to win about 25 seats on the island of Montreal and in suburban Laval. Add five seats each in the Outaouais and Townships, and you have 35 seats. In 418, the Liberals figure to win several seats in each of the Gaspe, Saguenay and Mauricie regions, and hang on to a couple in Quebec City, while losing half a dozen in the capital to Dumont's Action democratique du Quebec.

The election could all come down to the 16-seat 450 region south and west of Montreal -- an area known as Monteregie, containing the towns of Boucherville, Granby, Sorel, Saint-Jeansur- Richelieu and Saint-Hyacinthe, as well as the Montreal suburbs of Longueuil and Brossard. If the Liberals can win only seven of those 16 seats, they should be north of 50 seats, and certain to form at least a minority government.

The fate of the Liberals may well depend on MONTREAL - Dumont, and whether his support breaks out of the Quebec City region into other parts of 418, particularly the Mauricie around Trois-Rivieres, and into the Gaspe east of his own riding of Riviere-du-Loup.

A CROP poll of the Quebec City region on Wednesday showed Dumont poised for a sweep of the area's 12 seats straddling both sides of the St. Lawrence River, with a 40% ADQ voting intention, against 26% for the PQ and 24% for the Liberals. Across the province, meanwhile, a Leger marketing poll last weekend put the Liberals at 33%, with the surging ADQ tied with the PQ at 30%.

This could be a watershed election, one that breaks decades of polarization, in which two generations of voters have been held hostage by the federalist and separatist clans. Either as leader of the opposition, or of a third party holding the balance of power in a minority House, Dumont would represent a virage to the right, heralding a confrontation with the province's powerful unions and other entrenched forces of the left.

But there is still time for Charest to widen his slim lead. There is a strong sense that after three weeks of slippage, his campaign is finally growing again. It may be that in the final days, the Liberals' fundamental advantages are re-appearing.

In the field for Policy Options on the two nights following last week's leaders' debate, pollster Nik Nanos of SES Research tested five leadership attributes: vision, competence, trust, similarity of views with the voter's own and character. Charest won them all, Dumont finished a solid second, with Andre Boisclair a distant third. Charest won two key measures, competence and character, by a 2- 1 margin over Boisclair. On three party strengths --best team, best platform and best defender of Quebec's interests -- the Liberals won them all handily.

These are big comparative advantages for the Liberals. And another one may soon present itself: Jean Charest, the best campaigner of his generation, has run a flat and generally uninspired campaign. But he usually shows up at the end.

 
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