Quebec’s Split Decision: A Tour d’horizon

Among other takeaways from the results in Quebec on Oct. 21 is the death of the wave. The province, traditionally, has been the home of viral voting: Mulroney’s 1984 vague bleue, Layton’s 2011 Orange Wave, Trudeau’s bagging of just over half the province’s seats in 2015. This time, the Liberals can say they won the most ridings, but by a narrow two-seat margin over the Bloc Québécois. McGill Institute for the Study of Canada Director Daniel Béland breaks down the numbers. 

Daniel Béland

Oct. 26, 2019

By far the most spectacular aspect of the 2019 federal election in Quebec is the return of the Bloc Québécois to centre stage. Considering they won only four seats in 2011 and 10 in 2015, taking 32 seats in the province on Oct. 21 was an excellent showing for the Bloc.

This is particularly the case because, under the short and polarizing leadership of Martine Ouellet (March 2017-June 2018), the party almost fell apart. This became obvious in late February 2018, when seven of its 10 MPs left the party’s caucus to sit as independents. In January 2019, another former Parti Québécois cabinet minister, Yves-François Blanchet, became leader of the Bloc by acclamation. In less than a year, he helped put the Bloc back on track, notably by performing very well during the two French-language debates.

Blanchet’s performance is only one source of the party’s success in 2019. Another factor is the fact that, during the campaign, instead of emphasizing sovereignty, the Bloc aligned itself with Premier François Legault’s autonomist form of nationalism, which stresses the need for Ottawa to mind its own business and even let the Quebec government gain more powers in key policy areas. Although Premier Legault refused to endorse any federal party during the campaign, his warning to party leaders, especially Justin Trudeau, not to intervene in the case of the controversial Quebec secularism legislation (Bill 21) helped Blanchet and the Bloc, who could depict themselves as the only true defenders of a legislation that remains popular among French-speaking Quebecers.

Yet, it would be a mistake to reduce the return of the Bloc to the debate over Bill 21. In the end, the Bloc also capitalized on the decline of the NDP in Québec, which lost 13 of its 14 remaining seats there. Most of those seats went to the Bloc. To a certain extent, the protest vote that went to the NDP in 2011 and generated the Orange Wave gradually dissipated and the Bloc has now returned to its traditional role of the main federal opposition voice in Quebec.

The decline of the NDP, which began in 2015, is the other big story of this campaign but, as opposed to the rise of the Bloc, this is something that most observers expected at the outset of the 2019 campaign. The NDP is not deeply rooted in Quebec and, even under the leadership of Quebec-based leader Thomas Mulcair, the party lost the vast majority of its seats at the 2015 federal elections (16 seats compared to 59 four years earlier). In 2015, Mulcair’s principled position on the niqab hurt the NDP in Quebec. This year, Jagmeet Singh took a more pragmatic (opportunistic?) position on Bill 21, saying that, under his watch, the federal government would never intervene in the case. Yet that strategic gesture, and the insistence on the part of Singh that he shared Quebecers’ values, did not prevent the freefall facing the NDP in the province. It is not clear whether another leader, including Mulcair, would have been able to stop the party’s political hemorrhage in the province.

Bloc supporters rally in downtown Quebec City. Yves-François Blanchet’s campaign, notably his performance in the French debates, enabled the Bloc to get back in the game. Flickr photo

At the beginning of the campaign, many observers and Liberal insiders believed the anticipated NDP losses in Quebec would primarily benefit the Liberals, who needed to win more seats in the province in order to offset potential losses in Atlantic Canada and Western Canada. In the end, amid the resurgence of the Bloc, the Liberals won only 35 seats, five fewer than in 2015. Yet, in part because of their performance in Montreal and Laval, the Liberals did win more seats and popular votes than the Bloc, which performed much better than in 2011 and 2015 but is not nearly as powerful in the province now than it was in the 1990s and 2000s. For instance, in 1993, at its first federal elections, the Bloc won 49 per cent of the popular votes and 54 seats out of 75 in the province. In 2004, the score of the Bloc was nearly identical (54 seats and 49 percent of the votes). The 2019 results of the Bloc, although impressive in light of more recent electoral results (2011 and 2015), pale in comparison. This means that, although the Bloc is back, the Liberals found a way to remain slightly ahead of it, at least this time around.

Like the Liberals, the Conservatives were hopeful to make some gains in Quebec at the beginning of the 2019 campaign but, once again, the rise of the Bloc stood in the way of their ambition. Perhaps more importantly, Andrew Scheer failed to connect with Quebecers and his performance during the French-language debates proved lackluster at best. He also struggled to clarify his position on abortion, a particularly thorny issue in a province where support for abortion rights is widespread. Moreover, his party’s weak environmental platform hurt the Conservatives in a province where climate change has become such a key issue, especially among younger people. In the end, the Conservatives won only 10 seats, two fewer than in 2015. Getting barely 16 percent of the votes, slightly less than in 2015, the Conservatives once again struggled in la belle province, where their only stronghold remains the Quebec City area, which has a unique, right-wing political culture within the province.

The Green Party also performed better in Quebec in 2019 than in 2015, as far as the level of popular support is concerned (4.5 per cent of the popular vote or about twice as much support as in 2015). Yet, despite the popularity of environmental protection in Quebec, the Greens failed to generate enough support to win seats there because of our first-past-the-post system, which disadvantages the Greens more than any other well-established party.

Another party that failed to elect any MPs in Quebec is the People’s Party of Canada. Party leader and founder Maxime Bernier was defeated (by a Conservative) in his Beauce riding, which he had held as a Conservative MP since 2006. Created only in 2018, the People’s Party lacked the human and financial resources to run a serious campaign. Moreover, Bernier’s lackluster debate performances and the relative lack of media attention towards immigration and asylum seekers during the 2019 campaign did not help this right-wing populist party. More generally, in Canada, populism, on the left or the right, seems to gather more political support at the provincial or regional level than at the federal level, where it is hard to project a coherent “people” that Canadians from different backgrounds and parts of the country can identify with. And outright opposition to “mass immigration” also sounds like a non-starter, ideologically speaking.

Finally, to bring all the pieces of the puzzle together, the lessons of the 2019 federal elections in Quebec are quite straightforward. First, the Bloc is back but it is not nearly as strong as in the 1990s and 2000s. Second, the Liberals remain strong in Montreal and Laval but they face major challenges outside of the larger urban centres. Second, conversely, the Conservatives face major challenges in the Montreal region but also in other parts of the province, the main exception being the Quebec City area. Third, in hindsight, the 2011 Orange Wave was a one-off event related to the personality and popularity of then NDP leader Jack Layton and not the beginning of a new and politically sustainable era for the party in the province. Fourth, small parties like the Greens and the People’s Party struggled, in Quebec as elsewhere in the country, in the context of a first-past-the-post system that clearly disadvantages such parties, for better or for worse.

Daniel Béland is the Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and a James McGill Professor in the Department of Political Science at McGill University.