The Péladeau effect

A week and a half into the election campaign, and things are not exactly going according to the script. A couple of weeks ago, it seemed as if the governing Parti Québécois would easily saunter into majority status. The Liberal Party had a terrible time of it in the run-up to the election. Its untested leader, Philippe Couillard, seemed weak and indecisive in dealing with Fatima Houda-Pépin, the Liberal MNA who took exception with what she saw as her Party’s excessively lax stand on religious accommodation issues. She managed to steal the headlines from her boss for weeks, before ultimately slamming the door on him in a very public way. (She will be running in her old riding as an independent, and the PQ has made it plain that they would not run a candidate against her). The PQ on the other hand seemed unable to take a wrong step. The “Charter of Values” provided them with an inroad into the key swing suburban ridings around Montreal and Quebec City.

The announcement that media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau would be joining the race as a PQ candidate seemed like the cherry atop the PQ’s electoral sundae. Péladeau is one of the most recognizable faces in Quebec, and his nomination was meant to seal the coalition around the PQ of fiscally cautious sovereignists (after all, if a successful businessman like Péléadeau thinks that sovereignty makes economic sense, then it must be ok, right?), Charter of Values advocates (it was after all Péladeau’s media outlets that were at the origin of the creation of the reasonable accommodation psychodrama that Quebeckers are still trying to emerge from), and “souverainistes pressés”, those sovereignists who are pushing the PQ to abandon its cautious attitude to sovereignty for a more resolute one (at the press conference announcing his candidacy, Péladeau incongruously raised a fist and claimed that he had gotten in the race in order to give his children a country they could be proud of).

But it hasn’t worked according to plan, at least not yet. And there are reasons to think that Péladeau may be more of a problem for the PQ than they had thought. First, a man like Péladeau does not enter politics in order to play second fiddle. He clearly sees himself as a future leader, and this has led to visible tensions with the more established PQ brass. There was a wonderful moment last week when Pauline Marois had to physically push “PKP” aside as he ventured toward the podium in order to answer a question about his media holdings. Péladeau has never played to any playbook but his own, but electoral campaigns require that candidates stick to the same script.

This is especially true of this campaign, a very close one in which the PQ needs to make sure that it avoids those topics that undecided Quebeckers are most averse to.  And this is the second respect in which PKP’s arrival has been a mixed blessing for the governing party. It makes electoral sense for the PQ to steer as clear as possible from the question of sovereignty and another referendum. Polls consistently show that 60% or more of Quebeckers are opposed to the idea of sovereignty. What’s more, a significant proportion of sovereignists do not want to hear of another referendum in the near future. Péladeau’s profession de foi souverainiste led to a precious day or two of damage limitation on the part of Pauline Marois, who painted pretty but utterly incredible pictures of a sovereign Quebec having open borders with the rest of Canada, and a common currency as well. (Though there is little Canada could do to prevent Quebec from using the loony, there is something paradoxical about a sovereignist leader conceding control over monetary policy in order to convince voters that there is nothing to fear from sovereignty.

A third irritant surrounding Péladeau’s candidacy has had to do with his initial categorical refusal to agree to sell the controlling interest he has in his media empire, Québécor. PQ sympathizers pointed to the fact that former Canadian PM Paul Martin placed his shares in a number of shipping companies in a blind trust, which was exactly what Péladeau was proposing to do. But when you run a media empire, and when that media empire has not exactly been reticent to set the political agenda (and when, by most accounts, the boss who is now an aspiring politician was quite active in dictating to his journalists what that agenda would be), a blind trust may not be enough to guard against the appearance of conflict of interest. Whether fair or not, talk of the “Berlusconisation” of Quebec politics was probably not what the PQ was hoping for when they introduced their star candidate to the public.

Finally, though some union leaders have pledged to support the PQ even with Péladeau taking a central role in the campaign, figuring that if they were going to fight the notoriously union-busting business leader, they might as well be doing it in an independent country, the nomination has not sat well with others.

Another factor that may be eating into the PQ’s lead has been a surprising lack of due diligence in vetting candidates. A candidate in a safe Liberal riding was recently forced to step aside after it was revealed that his Facebook page had recently prominently figured Islamophobic images and slogans favorable to France’s extreme right Front National. And perhaps more damagingly, Pauline Marois has been cast into the very uncomfortable position of having to defend the right to freedom of speech of Louise Mailloux, who is running against Québec Solidaire’s co-spokesperson Françoise David in Montreal’s Gouin riding. Mailloux has written violently anti-religious screeds, which contained conspiracy theories about hallal and kosher “taxes”, and which equated baptism and circumcision as forms of “rape”. Whether Mailloux will be allowed to hold on to her candidacy is an open question, but whatever the outcome she has also already cost her leader a precious day or two of damage limitation.

Thus, while it isn’t clear what benefit the PQ will derive from Péladeau’s candidacy, the costs are becoming evident. Polls taken after the news of Péladeau’s jump into politics have indicated a modest bump for the Liberal Party, which has thus far run an error-free, yet somewhat bland campaign.

It may yet get worse for the PQ. Duverger’s Law, named after the French political scientist Maurice Duverger, and according to which electoral systems organized around first-past-the-post single-member districts tend to give rise to two-party systems, is making itself felt in this campaign. The Coalition Avenir Québec’s share of the vote appears to be melting, and it has been breaking predominantly in favour of the Liberals. Remember that the CAQ was born of the desire that many Quebeckers felt to shelve the sovereignty issue for a generation. Though many of their voters feel sympathy for the PQ’s Charter of Values, it could be that their aversion for referendum politics may win the day.

At this stage, it’s really anybody’s game. Though the electoral map favors the PQ, the momentum seems for right now to be in the Liberal camp. What’s more, remember the “voting day dividend” that Robert Bourassa used to speak of, that habitually gives rise to a 1 or two  point swing on election day.

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