How the strange vibes in Quebec politics could be working against Denis Coderre

Denis Coderre’s future in municipal politics is uncertain as the incumbent mayor struggles to fend off both a surging opponent and a simmering distrust of establishment politicians.

Can the incumbent mayor withstand the current malaise with establishment politicians?

Denis Coderre on municipal election campaign trail in late September. Voters head to the polls on Nov. 5th. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

Denis Coderre's future in municipal politics has suddenly become uncertain as the incumbent mayor struggles to fend off both a surging opponent and a simmering distrust of establishment politicians.

As the municipal election campaign enters its final week, the sky-high levels of support Coderre enjoyed mid-mandate have now seem like a distant memory.

The savvy veteran finds himself in a horse-race to the finish line against Valérie Plante, the newcomer with big ideas and a golden smile.

Coderre's strategy thus far in the campaign has been to bank on his experience. He makes no secret of his connections in Ottawa and Quebec City, of his hobnobbing with business elites and world leaders.

In normal times, experience and connections are considered assets in politics. But what if these aren't normal, but interesting times, as the purported Chinese curse goes?

Coderre, seen here with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard (far left), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left) and Caisse de dépôt CEO Michael Sabia (right), often boasts of his connections with political and business elites. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

"There is a political climate in Quebec right now where even good news is not understood as good news," said Pierre Bélanger, a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister who headed Coderre's 2013 election campaign.

Montreal's economy is doing well and governments are plowing infrastructure money into the city. But as Bélanger points out, that hasn't impressed Montrealers much, just as the province's economic growth has done little to improve the fortunes of the Quebec Liberals.

"The electorate in Montreal, and Quebec, is in a strange mood, an autumnal mood," he said. "All that is new is good, all that is in place is less good. It's not rational."

That represents a threat to Coderre. It is one thing to campaign against Plante and Projet Montréal, it is another to campaign against the underlying malaise with representative democracy that is sweeping across the Western world.

"It's not currently an advantage, for any politician in Quebec, to be associated with the establishment," Bélanger said.

Channeling the vibes

The Projet Montréal campaign is attuned to these vibrations, and it's trying to channel them into support for their leader.

Campaign slogans — such as Pas de squelettes, pas de cassette — are meant to translate Plante's lack of experience into an asset, implying she's free of baggage and talking points.

On social media, the party is playing up what would be the historic dimension of a Plante mayorship — that she would be the city's first female mayor.

The heliotropic campaigns of the NDP in 2011 and the Liberals in 2015 are Projet's models. "We can't scare people into voting for us," said one senior party figure.

But the path to victory for Plante remains formidable. Even though recent polls suggest she is in a dead-heat with Coderre, party insiders admit to needing to find another five points down the homestretch of the campaign, factoring in the bump that incumbents usually enjoy.

Valérie Plante, seen here at the start of the campaign, is vying to become Montreal's first elected female mayor. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

They have two battlegrounds in mind: Ahuntsic-Cartierville and Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, where Projet's Sue Montgomery and Équipe Coderre's Russell Copeman are engaged in a no-holds-barred contest for borough mayor.

Plante, and Projet in general, will also have to deal with the greater scrutiny that comes with being bona fide contenders to take over city hall.

​In recent interviews they've adopted messaging that seeks to play down the party's reputation for idealism.

Plante, for instance, has struck a pragmatic tone about the eventual form the proposed Pink line will take, even suggesting she'd be open to shelving it altogether if the route was served by the LRT.

She's also promised she won't remove Coderre appointees for partisan purposes if she wins the election. In other words, Projet wants to be seen as representing change, not upheaval.

That autumnal mood

Despite the momentum Projet has built for itself, and despite the state of Montreal's collective subconscious, Bélanger is confident Coderre will pull out a victory.

There are demographics that weigh in the incumbent's favour: his support among older voters and property owners — two groups more likely to vote.

And then there is good old-fashioned door-knocking and the organizational skills that come with a lifetime spent in politics.  

"Mr. Coderre is a political beast on the ground. The more he gets out and meets people, the stronger he is," said Bélanger.

These factors would tend to give Coderre the advantage if turnout on Nov. 5 is in line with past municipal elections (i.e. low).

But if this autumnal mood holds, if the zombie generation comes to life, then there will be little his campaign machine can do.

Interesting times indeed.

Make a date with CBC for election night this Sunday, Nov. 5:

Online: Get breaking news and live results at after polls close at 8 p.m.

On Facebook: Join host Debra Arbec for a 90-minute Facebook Live starting at 10 p.m. with results, analysis and reports from across Quebec.

On TV: Watch our live results show at 11-11:30 p.m. on CBC Television.

On Radio: Listen to CBC Radio One starting at 8 p.m. for a province-wide show hosted by Mike Finnerty in Montreal and Susan Campbell in Quebec City.


Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal. He will be a William Southam Journalism Fellow at Massey College in 2021-2022.