The Changing Party System in Quebec: The 2003 Elections and beyond (1)

Article excerpt

In contrast to the 1998 Quebec election--"the election everybody won" (Allan, O'Reilly, and Vengroff), at first glance the 2003 election result seems much more decisive. The Patti Liberal du Quebec (PLQ) achieved a clear majority, winning 76 of 125 seats in the National Assembly and gaining 46 percent of the total vote. The incumbent Parti Quebecois (PQ), contesting its first election trader the leadership of Bernard Landry carried only 45 seats (including one seat won after a dead heat and a special by-election)--30 fewer than in 1998--with only a third of votes cast. For Mario Dumont's Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ), finally, the election proved to be a major disappointment. Having won four by-elections since 1998 (in addition to the seat already held by Dumont), the ADQ was optimistic that this could be a "takeoff" election that would establish them officially as the province's third party. Many thought that the time seemed ripe for the ADQ to be Quebec's "next generational party" (Caldwell; see also Lemieux). It may still be on track to do so.

Instead, however, although it increased its share of the vote by 50 percent since 1998 (to over 18 percent) and won three new seats, it lost all four seats gained in by-elections since 1998 for a net loss of one seat, leaving it well short of the twelve seats but close to the 20 percent of the vote needed for official party status in the National Assembly of Quebec. (2) Its support, however, was critical to the PQ defeat and indirectly to the Liberal's victory.

What, if anything, does the stunning victory of Jean Charest's PLQ tell us about the current nature of the party system in Quebec? Does it simply reinforce the two-party dominance in Quebec, where no party has won three consecutive provincial elections since the 1930s, or does it suggest a longer-term process of party system change? In this article, we offer an analysis of the 2003 campaign and its implications for the future of Quebec's party system. The paper is divided into three broad sections. First we examine the state of the party system following the 1998 election, and briefly review the major political developments, including opinion poll trends, during the period between 1998 and the beginning of the 2003 campaign. Second, we provide an overview of the 2003 election campaign itself, focusing on the major issues that dominated the campaign, the party platforms, trends in. opinion polls, and the impact of the leaders' debate. Finally, we offer an empirical analysis of the election results themselves, using riding and regional-level data to gain greater purchase over our understanding of the election's implications for the future of Quebec's party politics.

The 1998 Election and its Aftermath

The nature of the 1998 election's outcome offered some indication that Quebec's party system was entering a state of flux. The PQ won a clear majority of seats in the National Assembly, but the gloss of this victory was removed somewhat by the fact that the PLQ actually won a plurality of votes province-wide. Moreover, although Dumont's ADQ was unable to pick up any more seats in the election, for the first time it fielded candidates in all 125 ridings. It markedly increased its share of the vote both overall and, more significantly, in the ridings where it had contested elections in the past. Thus all parties could genuinely point to positives from the result, which is hardly suggestive of "politics as usual."

Moreover, our regional- and riding-level analyses of the 1998 election suggested that the party system was "Balkanizing," so that each party was able to identify areas in which it had strong support: the Liberals continued to dominate ridings in West Montreal Island, and the Outaouais and Estrie regions, while the PQ remained strong in the francophone heartland (Allan, O'Reilly, and Vengroff). Most critical to the future shape of Quebec's party system, however, were the support bases of the ADQ. …