Legault's Crumbling Avenir in Quebec

Quebec's election has boiled down to a choice between the incumbent Parti Quebecois and the main opposition Liberals. This political dynamic is not ideal for Francois Legault's Coalition Avenir Quebec party, which stands the most to lose on April 7.

As Quebecers start tuning into their divisive and controversial set of politics, they see 3 main themes: the Economy, Identity and another Referendum. The CAQ has done its best to sound like the Liberals on economic affairs but have repeatedly sided with the PQ on identity - a portfolio that has been very divisive since the Charter of Freedoms made its way to a bill. This election campaign will be divisive and the issues being brought forward are in black and white and as much as Legault would like to sound like the Liberals, their role in the National Assembly to date has been to reluctantly prop-up the PQ with some of its most polarizing agendas. This has left him in a vulnerable position since those who are satisfied with the PQ's identity agenda will unite behind them and those who aren't only see one alternative and it's not the CAQ.

Take Bill 14, a plan that would strengthen already stringent language laws and, according to the Barreau, attack fundamental rights and freedoms of Quebecers - particularly non-Francophones and minorities. Legault has two options: Side with the PQ who own the identity portfolio and support it, or join the Liberals and reject it. He chose to support it (with conditions) and lost a good chunk of the Liberal vote that went to his party in 2012 in protest against then-Premier Jean Charest. He, in essence, lost the position of being the man of change. The PQ killed the bill when it came with its divisive charter of values, but PQ leader Pauline Marois announced Monday that it would be a "priority" if she got re-elected.

"There is a major problem about French language in Quebec. We have problem with access to services in English. In some business organization they are not speaking French. We have to work on this issue," Marois said.

The worst part is not only does the PQ's Bill 14 infringe on individual liberties of minorities, and the Francophone majority alike, it is being handled by a language department that has little tolerance and believes the world will end because a restaurant used the word "pasta" in their menu. Language Minister Diane De Courcy's aid Alex Verboczy wasn't fired for his offensive article entitled "Ils sont fou ces anglos" and what more would you expect from a party that believes division is the route for power and plays on the most primitive of divisions?

Where was Francois Legault to speak against the bill? Tactically, he gave the Liberals the floor to defend minorities against the PQ while trying to align himself with a political party that has almost always been known for its strength on these issues. So people looking for an alternative to Pauline Marois, who has a 60% disapproval rating, is no longer looking at Legault as an alternative - and his party is the only major non-separatist party in the game. In addition, those in favor with the idea aren't going to look to an opposition party to implement it when the governing party already proposed it.

The next issue, the Charter of Values, is even more divisive than Bill 14. Legault had a chance to redeem himself within the pool of people who won't consider the PQ. He blew it. Taking the middle of the road approach and accepting it with amendments is not going to win over PQ loyalists, nor will it gain sympathy among those radically opposed to the bill. Once again, Legault cornered himself and his party as the Liberals and PQ went for the showdown. While the Liberals flip-flopped on the issue, they are still perceived as the option for those who oppose the Charter - a title Legault could have had if he would have sided with the Liberals and exploited the flip-flop.

Legault speaks a good chunk about the economy, trying to steal votes from the Liberals. His economic agenda is one that aims to deal with the issue of Quebec's spending far beyond its means. His economic agenda is not the same as that of the Liberals and is in fact, more inclined to be suited to fiscally-responsible Quebecers and the minority that do hold a federal Conservative membership. However, tactically, the CAQ is competing with the Liberals who have dominated the economic profile but those who would have considered the CAQ aren't likely going to consider the PQ because of identity politics. Legault's slip up was talking like the Liberals and acting like the PQ in the National Assembly and now both parties are feasting off the Legault's Crumbling Avenir du Quebec.

While Legault does offer a balance between the Liberals and PQ on economic and identity policy, he does so in a context where issues tend to be politically black and white. On identity, he supports the PQ's agenda but waters it down. This tactic is meant to give soft-PQ voters a pro-economic alternative but why do people vote PQ?

It's no secret the PQ are weak on the economic profile. Ever since Marois took power the news is job losses, increasing unemployment rates and higher than expected deficits. So what drives the PQ's raison d'être? Identity and sovereignty. The idea of a country is on the back burner, over 61% of Quebecers would vote "no" in a referendum today so Legault's neutrality on the issue is moot. That leaves identity. You won't find many Parti Quebecois supporters that fundamentally disagree with the charter and it is notable that a lot of their base are militants on the basis of culture. Those who do disagree with the charter are also likely to defect to one of the other pro-sovereignty options. That leaves the group of voters who staunchly disagree with the charter who have been attracted by the Liberals because Legault chose to stand with Marois instead of Liberal leader Philippe Couillard.

So what does this all mean? Legault is cornered and is tactically in a really bad place. There are three themes this campaign. On the Economy, it's a choice between Liberal and CAQ. On Identity, it's a choice between Liberal and PQ. On Quebec Independence, it's a choice between Liberal and PQ. Those focused on identity and independence aren't going to stray away from their vehicle to power: the PQ - not even for the sake of the economy so Legault has lost a vast majority of that market. These issues are so divisive, it has left Legault's alternative market decisively driven to the Liberals in a frantic effort to stop a PQ majority.

Without a clear and unique raison d'être in a polarized setting, the CAQ is seen by both sides as the split-vote and in the end of the day, those that want one way or another aren't going to let the CAQ stand between them. With momentum in the PQ's sails Marois's opponents will go to one place: the Liberals (the party that hasn't sided with the PQ). The CAQ collapse is in the context of a polarized political dynamic and does not necessarily mean its voters won't return in the future, but unless the party takes some solid grounded steps to create a unique raison d'être, the PQ and Liberals will use wedge issues to undermine the CAQ and it's own stances to date are responsible for its downfall.

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