After CAQ victory, Liberals have a chance to seize Quebec's political centre
A revamped Liberal Party could emerge as a viable alternative to the ruling party
It's probably hard for Quebec Liberals to see the sunny side right now.
They have just come through the worst election in their history, in terms of popular vote (24.5 per cent), and the most crushing defeat since 1976, when René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois first swept into power, leaving the Liberals with only 26 seats.
Quebecers voted for change. They repudiated the two traditional governing parties, the Liberals and the Parti Québécois, and opted for a younger party, the Coalition Avenir Québec.
Its right-of-centre policies include smaller government and fewer immigrants. Voters also gave a big boost to another young party, Québec Solidaire, awarding it 10 seats.
The Liberals hold only 32 seats. Their leader, Philippe Couillard, not surprisingly, announced he was quitting politics on Thursday.
"A new person, or maybe even a new generation, if the party faithful want that, will guide our great party through its next stage," he said in his farewell speech.
Rudderless, or a shining opportunity?
There are two ways of looking at the situation: the Liberals are either rudderless and defeated, or at a crossroads with a shining opportunity before them.
That opportunity is to move into a band of the political spectrum that is currently vacant: the centre.
It's territory the PQ and Liberals have fought over in the past, but with the PQ in disarray, the Liberals are in a slightly better position to claim it. They'd better do it quickly.
The Liberals have the advantage of being the Official Opposition in the National Assembly. It will give them a platform to criticize the CAQ on an almost daily basis and present themselves as an attractive alternative.
The Canadian political way is to campaign from the right (or left, as the case may be), but govern in the centre. It's hard to know exactly what the CAQ plans to do.
But the fact that François Legault has already confirmed his intention to reduce immigration numbers and to ban religious symbols for some public servants is an indication that he feels comfortable sticking to the right.
Quebecers can also expect cuts to the public service, the elimination of school boards and lower taxes.
Québec Solidaire has staked its claim to the left. Its strong positions on the environment and expanded social services evidently appealed to many Quebecers, who feel radical change is necessary. But that same radicalism could make other Quebecers nervous.
The party's vehement desire for an independent Quebec could also slow its growth in votes. Polls suggest less than 40 per cent of Quebecers support sovereignty.
The question is: for those who aren't ready to support Québec Solidaire's revolution but who aren't comfortable with the more right-wing aspects of the CAQ, what option will there be in the next election in 2022?
That's where a revamped Liberal Party could emerge as a viable alternative.
Playing (against) the identity card
If the party is smart, it will gauge how the CAQ's policies go over in the coming months. How will Quebecers react to another divisive debate over religious signs? To stories of teachers leaving the classroom because they are prohibited from wearing hijabs? To the possible use of the notwithstanding clause to override constitutional rights?
If Quebecers begin to have doubts about the cast of the new government, it's an opportunity for the Liberals, under new leadership, to distinguish themselves from the CAQ and offer voters a more moderate, inclusive voice on cultural issues.
In his farewell speech, Philippe Couillard warned the Liberals to resist the temptation of identity politics.
"Quebec must remain a welcoming place, a society where everyone has a seat at the table, a place where people are judged by what they have in their heads, not on their heads," Couillard said.
"I ask my party to stay true to its values and to never bargain them away for a few votes."
Offer something different
The Liberals left the province's finances in a healthy state, with a budget surplus. But it came at a cost: austerity measures that turned the population against the party.
The Liberals retained the vote of anglophone and allophone voters – although even they turned out in smaller numbers than usual – but lost the vote of most francophones.
Polls suggest that roughly 17 per cent of francophones supported the Liberals before the vote. The party cannot hope to form a government without raising that number.
It needs to offer Quebecers something they can't get from the CAQ or Québec Solidaire.
With that in mind, the party should select a new leader who embodies that change. A couple of names spring to mind: the Liberal's campaign chairman, Alexandre Taillefer (founder of Téo Taxi), or André Fortin, the energetic, 36-year-old former Transport Minister.
Whoever that leader is, he or she will need to steer the party into the only place that's vacant right now, Quebec's political centre.