Quebec Votes·Analysis

Election gut check for Quebec's Pauline Marois

The Parti Québécois's "Concrete Lady," Pauline Marois has been a scrappy, determined fixture in Quebec politics for almost 35 years. Will that be enough to pull her through an innuendo-fuelled campaign that seems to be slipping away?

Innuendo-fuelled election campaign seems to be running out of steam

Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois speaks to reporters following a speech to the Montreal Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday. She's now promising tax breaks in two years time, once the budget is balanced. (Graham Hughes / Canadian Press)

As invective took over the Quebec election campaign these past several days, Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois suddenly seemed to become more intimate with the electorate.

There she was prefacing so many sentences with the very personal "between you and me."

It may have been just a tic, or more likely a device to soften her "Concrete Lady" image and deflate the partisan nature of the latest contretemps.

Of course it can also be seen as a last, almost intimate appeal from someone who now realizes she has rolled the dice on probably the biggest gamble of her political life, and that events may not be working out quite the way she thought.

Marois has been a constant on the Quebec political landscape for almost 35 years. First elected, while pregnant, to the National Assembly in 1981, Marois has been a prominent cabinet member in the governments of René Lévesque, Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard.

Like her or not, people here feel they know her. Quebec's first female finance minister, first female party leader (on her third attempt), and first female premier, in 2012.

Clearly, her campaign slogan — Déterminé — is more than bluster: she is indeed one determined woman.

But, now, perhaps more than ever, a weekend away from election-day Monday, Marois's entire future is on the line.

Short of securing the majority she seemed so confident she would win just four weeks ago when she called the vote, she may well be forced to take her leave, even as early as Monday night.

If such is the case, she'll join ranks with Alberta's Alison Redford and Newfoundland's Kathy Dunderdale in the new subcategory of female premiers forced to resign for losing their party's favour.

She'll also stand alongside no less illustrious separatists as Lévesque, Parizeau, Bouchard and Bernard Landry, all PQ leaders unable to foster the famously elusive "winning conditions" for a successful referendum on sovereignty.

But her most damning legacy will be singular: she will have been the one PQ leader who, comfortably ensconced in government, made the historic miscalculation of calling a snap election that saw the PQ not just kicked out of office, but having squandered its own socially responsible identity with flashy candidates like media baron Pierre Karl Peladeau.

The last leg

Marois may already know it's over. A series of more-or-less dependable polls released this week continue to place Philippe Couillard's Liberals in the lead, and suggest the PQ's support eroding even further.

Bluffing or not, Quebec Liberal Party Leader Philippe Couillard is looking much more relaxed as the election campaign winds down. (Jacques Boissinot / Canadian Press)

But as political wisdom has it, there is only one poll that counts, and all party leaders have frantic plans for the last leg of the campaign.

The Liberals are parking their bus and hiring a plane for a whirlwind tour of a few of the province's more far-flung regions on the last campaign day.

The frenzied, fast-forward image it evokes seems fitting for a campaign that has spiralled off in all directions, in the process schooling scandal-fatigued Quebecers in everything from corporate registration in Delaware to the laws governing offshore banking on the British island of Jersey,

More spuriously, not to say confusingly, Quebecers have been told by the forces of secularism that they're in a fight against Islamic fundamentalists, though not one against each other in any possible referendum. At least not until they're ready, anyhow, whatever that means.

However, for all the furious handshaking ahead, it may well be too late to change much of anything.

This campaign seemed to peak earlier this week with allegations of possibly illegal fundraising against Marois's husband, businessman Claude Blanchet.

Marois and her husband immediately denied the allegation, but suddenly Quebec's entire political class now seemed sullied, soiled.

Not missing a chance to lay claim for the work done by Quebec's anti-corruption police and the Charbonneau Commission, Marois questioned the timing of the allegation, suggesting it was the work of a Liberal supporter who wanted "revenge" against the PQ for ending the system of illegal party financing.

Parti Quebecois candidate and media baron Pierre-Karl Peladeau takes part in a local candidates debate on March 31 in Saint Jerome. (Ryan Remiorz / Canadian Press)

But coming as it did after almost two weeks of back-and-forth innuendo and allegations against Marois and Couillard in particular, you can forgive Quebecers for feeling they've seen enough already, and for wanting to have it over with.

Even Marois's surprise promise yesterday to cut corporate and personal income tax in two years, once the budget is balanced, seemed to fall on stony ground.

Questioned as to the timing of this rather exceptional electoral promise, in the dying days of a possibly dying campaign, Marois laid the blame on others, saying simply "No one ever asked me before."

It was the kind of comeback that stretches credulity, not to mention voter confidence.

It is now common wisdom here that this is one of, if not the dirtiest Quebec election campaigns in recent memory.

And, despite the claims by all involved to end the mudslinging, it is hard to see that stopping, even by Monday night.


Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.


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