(Bloomberg) -- Quebec Premier Francois Legault called an election Sunday, triggering a 36-day campaign to convince voters in Canada’s second-largest province to give him another four years in power. There seems little standing in his way.
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The leader’s nationalist Coalition Avenir Quebec begins with a huge lead and a divided opposition. He is already Quebec’s most powerful political force in at least a generation, thanks to his immense personal popularity with French-speaking voters in suburban and rural parts of the province. So powerful that some critics worry his government could pose a danger to democracy if political opposition becomes too weak.
That strength was on display during his first day of campaigning, as the 65-year-old politician declared in front of the famous Montmorency fall in Quebec City: “Ask yourself the question. Who do you want to manage your money in the next four years? Which economic team do you trust the most?[...] Which is the most competent team?”
The CAQ’s slogan is “Continuons,” meaning “let’s continue.” Another four years in power would, he says, allow him to increase Quebec’s economic growth while helping Quebecers struggling with inflation, pursue reforms in healthcare and in education, defend measures on immigration, religious symbols and language aimed to preserve national identity, and better fight climate change.
“We must not break this momentum, I need you and that’s why I’m asking you for a mandate to continue,” Legault said.
The latest poll in Quebecor Inc.’s newspapers gives the party 42% support, 25 points ahead of the Quebec Liberal Party. If the numbers were to hold, the election could nearly wipe out the Liberals and the separatist Parti Quebecois -- the two parties that governed Quebec from 1970 to 2018 -- from the 125-seat National Assembly.
The CAQ won 74 seats in 2018. The road to more than 90 seems “plausible” at the moment, according to pollster Christian Bourque, the executive vice-president of the Montreal-based market research firm Leger.
“The management of the pandemic was huge for Francois Legault as his government was really in tune with civil society,” he said. Close to three million Quebecers religiously listened to the premier’s daily press conferences at the beginning of the Covid pandemic. “I think that helped him a lot.”
‘Cult of Personality’
CAQ’s advertising campaign over the past weeks have been a lot about the man, “a sort of cult of personality,” Christian Bourque said. “At some point, some people are bound to think that it smells like something they may not like. That it’s too much.”
To depict this sense of worship, La Presse’s cartoonist Serge Chapleau drew Legault beside Pope Francis when the Holy Father came to the province in July with someone asking in a crowd: “Who is the man in white beside Legault?”
His center-right coalition is now supported by 7 out of 10 baby boomers, and 1 of 2 francophones in Quebec. “What we will be seeing is the CAQ as the only true Quebec party and the other four being mainly regional parties,” Bourque said.
The Liberals can practically only count on Montreal to remain in politics, while the Parti Quebecois obtains less than 10% of the voting intentions. Left-wing Quebec Solidaire and right-wing Parti conservateur have emerged in recent years and split the vote further.
Tough on Ottawa
Legault, co-founder of the air carrier Transat A.T. Inc, came a long way before grasping power four years ago. From 1998 to 2009, the businessman was a prominent figure of the Parti Quebecois.
The CAQ, which he created in 2011, was intended to gather voters tired of the old separatist and federalist parties by focusing on a new brand of nationalism and economic productivity. The gamble has been successful in light of the party’s dominance.
“Legault embodies being tough on the federal government but not sovereignist,” Bourque said. “If people say in this campaign that he’s not managing healthcare correctly, he’ll just say it’s Ottawa’s fault.”
That said, policies put in place by the CAQ are far from unanimous. Laws to ban religious symbols for workers holding a position of authority in the public sector and to protect the French language have created deep divisions in cultural and English-speaking communities, especially in Montreal.
Inflation, acute healthcare problems, climate change and the rise of gun violence in Montreal are issues in play, but immigration and language could always resurface as they are wedge issues in Quebec.
On her first day of election campaign, Liberal leader Dominique Anglade said the ballot question will be the economy. “I am thinking of the cost of living. We have several families who are not able to make ends meet. They have to decide between the rent and buying food. That is not acceptable.”
As the province faces more than 270,000 job vacancies, critics also believe the CAQ is not doing enough to welcome more foreign workers. The Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal urges political parties to raise the immigration thresholds to at least 64,000 people a year. Legault’s government has set the bar at 50,000 maximum, despite the critical labor shortage, asserting that this number respects the state’s integration capacity.
Immigration criticism aside, the CAQ still succeeded in stealing away the economic brand from the Liberals. Francois Legault, an entrepreneur and accountant, has always been obsessed by Quebec’s wealth gap with Ontario. The catch up in real gross domestic product with Canada’s largest province should go from 16.4% in 2018 to 10% by 2026, as reported in the latest provincial budget.
The election begins as the province’s public finances are doing better than expected. According to a recent pre-election report produced by Quebec Auditor General, Guylaine Leclerc forecasts the deficit will fall to C$729 million in 2022-2023 from the C$6.45 billion presented in the budget plan last March. Before the pandemic, the government coffers were overflowed by surpluses.
National Bank of Canada Chief Economist Stefane Marion says every province benefited from higher incomes due to the strong economy and higher inflation. He noted, though, the amplitude of the forecasts surprised as Quebecers were less penalized by the surge in energy prices because of low-cost hydroelectricity -- and not necessarily because of the CAQ.
“Yes, there are pro-growth policies that have been put in place, he recognized, but the improvement in government revenues very much reflects the cyclical component of the economic developments, as opposed to just structural policies in place.”
The bank predicts a 3.6% GDP growth in 2022 and 1.3% in 2023, close to Ontario’s numbers.
Marion added, in the mid-term, “the government may need to introduce more policies to boost potential GDP above 2%.” The CAQ, the Liberals and the Conservatives promised to reduce the tax burden if elected to power. “I think that would be one way to achieve it.”
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