To former neurosurgeon Philippe Couillard, making sovereignty the ballot-box question in the Quebec election campaign was a no-brainer.
The Liberal leader, who was fighting his first campaign as his party’s chief, made it clear he would confront the Parti Quebecois’ sovereignty agenda head on.
He was accused of fear mongering by his opponents but his strategy paid off with a majority Liberal government on Monday night and the worst electoral defeat ever for the PQ.
With most polls reporting, the Liberals had won some 70 of the 125 seats up for grabs, compared with 30 for the PQ and about 20 for the third-placed Coalition for Quebec’s Future.
In comparison, the PQ had 54 seats at dissolution.
In terms of popular support, the Liberals pulled in about 40 per cent on Monday, a dramatic climb from 31 per cent in 2012. And the PQ finished the night with only a few more percentage points in support than the Coalition.
Couillard’s victory came 18 months after voters, weary of nine years of Liberal rule under Jean Charest and allegations of corruption within his party, turfed the Liberals out in favour of a minority PQ government under Pauline Marois.
Marois called the election on March 5 with the intention of riding a wave among some Quebecers for a secular charter that would have prohibited public-sector workers from wearing hijabs and kippas on the job.
Marois stepped down as Parti Quebecois leader in the wake of the drubbing and delivered Marois’s own seat in the riding of Charlevoix-Cote-de-Beaupre to Liberal rival Caroline Simard.
The party figured the fertile ground of identity politics as well as tougher language laws would drive it to victory.
But then came media mogul and star PQ candidate Pierre Karl Peladeau announcing he was leaving the business world for politics to build an independent Quebec. He delivered his message with a fist pump that might as well have been a gut punch to the PQ’s message.
Peladeau’s enthusiasm carried over to Marois, who mused for days about what a sovereign Quebec would be like, a contrast to other PQ leaders who downplayed sovereignty because of the distaste for referendums.
Although she quickly tried to move the discussion off sovereignty, Couillard hung on to it like a hungry dog with a meaty bone.
Two-thirds of Quebecers have said they don’t want a third referendum on sovereignty. The other two were held in 1980 and 1995.
Support for the option hovers between 35 and 40 per cent in opinion polls and the analysts have pointed out those who do back it are aging boomers.
Marois’s defeat follows the crushing of the Bloc Quebecois in the 2011 election when it was reduced to four seats and is stunningly similar to one that brought her to the PQ’s top job after Andre Boisclair suffered the worst electoral thrashing in the PQ’s history in 2007.
Marois, however, has now claimed Boisclair’s mantle of bringing the PQ to its worst defeat ever, winning fewer than the 36 ridings he claimed.
The PQ nearly collapsed after the 2007 election and Marois won the leadership by acclamation. Monday’s devastating blow to sovereignty will likely throw the party into upheaval again as it ponders its next move.
The red Liberal tide flowed early across Quebec’s electoral map on Monday, sweeping over the incumbent PQ, which had been battered by questions about its plans for a third sovereignty referendum that most Quebecers flatly said they didn’t want.
A dejected Coalition Leader Francois Legault was shown watching as the results came in, one hand gripping the side of a white couch as his wife sympathetically patted his knee. He later accepted the voters’ decision with grace.
While no pundit would be foolish enough to declare sovereignty dead, the option has likely been put to sleep for a while. Some observers have suggested it could be years, if not decades, before it is revived. Peladeau, on the other hand, won his Saint-Jerome riding on Monday night.
Monday’s results in Quebec no doubt prompted a sigh of relief in Ottawa as well.
With the PQ out, it means Prime Minister Stephen Harper won’t have to worry about a national unity crisis as he heads toward the 2015 election.
It will also not preoccupy Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair, who draws most of his New Democratic Party caucus from the province, some of whom expressed sovereigntist sympathies at one time or another.
The 33-day campaign had been considered as one of the nastiest in decades.
Voters had complained in the weeks leading up to the vote that bread-and-butter issues had received little attention as politicians fired potshots over the possibility of another sovereignty referendum or challenged each other on ethics.
Marois, whose party formed a minority government in 2012, was hoping to win a majority of the 125 ridings — a scenario that could have eventually led to another referendum.
“It is a beautiful day,” she told reporters after she cast her ballot in the riding of Charlevoix-Cote-de-Beaupre, northeast of Quebec City.
“I am very serene at this moment. I trust Quebecers will choose a good government to lead them and I am confident about tonight.”
Hours later, she would find out that the confidence was misplaced.
Recent opinion polls had indicated the momentum was with Couillard’s Liberals, although analysts were leery about predicting the size of the win given polling blunders in the Alberta and British Columbia provincial elections and in the estimations of Quebec Liberal strength in 2012.
Couillard, who trained as a neurosurgeon, was asked Monday whether it was more stressful performing brain surgery or trying to become Quebec premier.
“They’re pretty different but in some ways they’re quite alike,” he replied after voting in his riding of Roberval, a few hours north of Quebec City.
“We are fortunate to live in a democracy where we vote for our government every four years — or sometimes more often . . . . I’m happy about the campaign we had. I’m confident about the result but it’s now time for citizens to speak. Politicians have spoken enough.”
At dissolution, the PQ had 54 seats, while the Liberals had 49. The Coalition had 18, Quebec solidaire two and there were two Independents.
Nineteen per cent of the six million eligible voters cast a ballot in advance polling. As of 5:30 p.m. Monday, the percentage of Quebecers who had voted stood at 52.8 per cent, including the advance polling.
In the 2012 election, 53 per cent of eligible voters had cast a ballot as of 5:30 p.m., including the advance polling.
Turnout at the end of the day was 74.6 per cent.