François Legault's CAQ a dark horse in divided Quebec campaign

The hope of forming a CAQ majority government may be a bit far-fetched, but one thing's for sure: if François Legault's campaign had trouble lifting off the launch pad 31 days ago, it is certainly airborne now.

Sudden surge in support for Coalition Avenir Québec could produce some election day surprises

Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader François Legault speaks at a news conference Friday in Victoriaville. Quebecers are going to the polls on Monday. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

The first three weeks of the Quebec election campaign were largely dominated by one surprise issue.

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois, the province's first female premier, launched into the campaign saying she needed a majority government to adopt her controversial secular charter, and the Liberals framed the campaign as a plebiscite on the PQ's stewardship of the ailing economy.
But it was the spectre of another referendum in the event of a PQ majority that overtook everything else. Marois' lack of clarity on whether it would or would not happen drove voters into two camps: those who want a referendum, and those who don't.

That left Quebec's third party — François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec — caught in the middle, seemingly unable to gain any traction. Legault's past as a PQ minister also dogged him as federalist voters continued to dismiss him as an option on election day.

Game changer

Then, something happened during the second televised leaders' debate. Legault came away the perceived "winner" of the evening, and all of a sudden his message began getting through.

The polls began to reflect a rise in popularity for the CAQ.

On Friday during a campaign stop, Legault acknowledged he is paying attention to the poll numbers.

"When you look at polls, what's important are trends," Legault said. "There is a possibility that we will form a majority government, the CAQ, according to the trends."

I have a dream

That hope of forming a CAQ majority government may be a bit far-fetched. But one thing is for sure: if Legault's campaign had trouble lifting off the launch pad 31 days ago, it is certainly airborne now.

However, conventional wisdom dictates a good debate and a few favourable polls do not a premier make.

Legault has been ceaselessly criticized for focusing his campaign on himself, rather than showcasing other candidates running for his party. On Thursday, he shared a draft list of potential cabinet ministers for the editorial board of the tabloid Le Journal de Montréal. He told the newspaper board that it isn't that important to have so-called "star candidates."

"The PQ in 1976, they didn't have anyone who was well known. Camille Laurin wasn't known, Pierre Marc Johnson wasn't known. Me, I've got lots of unknown candidates who I know have extraordinary potential," Legault said.

While Legault may not have the potential to repeat the PQ sweep led by René Lévesque in 1976, his clout is now very real.

On election day, the most likely scenario is that the CAQ will play spoiler in a series of tight three-way races, which will help determine whether Quebec ends up with a Liberal or a PQ government.

About the Author

Tim Duboyce

Tim Duboyce was a news editor at CBC Montreal. He was CBC's correspondent at the Quebec National Assembly from 2003 to 2013, and has covered five Quebec provincial election campaigns.