Action démocratique du Québec is hit with a crushing defeat and leader Dumont resignsLES PERREAUX , RHÉAL SÉGUIN and INGRID PERITZ
SHERBROOKE, QUEBEC CITY, MONTREAL — Quebeckers chose the promise of a steady hand under Jean Charest and rejected right-wing populism yesterday, electing Liberals to a rare third term while sending Mario Dumont packing from provincial politics.
But Mr. Charest failed to win the easy majority that was projected before election day, holding just a few seats more than the 63-seat majority threshold, as late results rolled in.
Mr. Dumont's Action démocratique du Québec fell all the way from Official Opposition to losing official party status, winning fewer than 10 seats and taking a popular vote well beneath the 20 per cent official party threshold.
Mr. Dumont announced he would step down as leader.
The Parti Québécois made a late surge to capture more than 50 seats and about 36 per cent of the popular vote — just five points behind the Liberals.
The surprise rise of the PQ may have roots in Ottawa, whereas the virulent Conservative campaign against the "separatists" supporting a Liberal-NDP coalition may have spurred soft Quebec nationalists to register their displeasure at the ballot box.
While voters settled on the stability of the province's traditional mixture of two official parties as they head into a period of prolonged economic anxiety, a new front opened on the left. The sovereigntist Québec solidaire's candidate Amir Khadir defeated Daniel Turp in a traditional PQ stronghold.
In his speech to supporter, Mr. Charest pointed to the economy as something that should unite Quebeckers, regardless of how they voted."In this period of economic uncertainty, Quebeckers understood the need for political stability and chose to elect a majority Liberal government," Mr. Charest said. "I will be the Premier of all Quebeckers."
Mr. Charest also paid tribute to Mr. Dumont saying he understood his desire to spend time with his family after making a major contribution to the political debate in Quebec.
Mr. Charest spent the past two weeks of the election campaign arguing federal turmoil showed the need for stability in times of economic uncertainty.
He also pledged to badger Ottawa for aid for the forestry and manufacturing sectors along with a big chunk of promised infrastructure money. The demands are sure to figure prominently as Mr. Charest's government seeks concessions from a divided federal Parliament.
"The backdrop to this election is the economy," Mr. Charest said as he voted in his home riding of Sherbrooke, Que.
"Choosing the next government that will have the responsibility of leading Quebec into this economic period is extremely, extremely important."
But Mr. Charest remained concerned in the late stages over how the federal fight and the subsequent attacks against the Bloc Québécois could affect voters. Liberals feared any Quebec-bashing could fan the flames of nationalism in the province and give the PQ an unpredictable boost.
Mr. Charest is the first Quebec premier to win three consecutive elections since Maurice Duplessis won his fourth mandate in 1956.
It's a feat of longevity Quebec political greats such as Jean Lesage, René Lévesque and Robert Bourassa never managed, although Mr. Bourassa won two mandates in the early 1970s and again in the 1980s.
Mr. Charest called a snap election despite widespread voter disapproval about going to the polls so early after a federal election.
Mr. Charest was willing to risk the quick election because he feared the anticipated recession would create discontent and jeopardize his chances at being re-elected.
He ran a low-key frontrunner's campaign, staying as far from trouble as he could until Ottawa's fallout landed in Quebec.
"He was the Teflon man. Nothing stuck to him," said Antonia Maioni, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. "He was just on the whole time. He didn't have an off day."
The election marked a comeback for the PQ under Pauline Marois, 18 months after she took over the party's leadership. Ms. Marois returned the PQ to Official Opposition status after the dismal third-place, 36-seat result of the last election under André Boisclair.
Last night's results also became a test of Ms. Marois's strategy to sideline sovereignty as a campaign theme. The move was seen as savvy at a time when Quebeckers have shown indifference toward the issue; the wild card was whether the strategy would alienate the PQ's traditional base.
Instead, Prime Minister Stephen Harper may have helped reinvigorate it.
Last night's vote also marked a major breakthrough for the left-wing Québec-solidaire.
The Iranian-born Mr. Khadir is active in community and humanitarian causes such as Médecins du Monde. The riding includes the bohemian Plateau Mont Royal district and is known for its iconoclastic bent at the ballot box; voters there elected poet Gérald Godin for the PQ in 1976, thereby defeating former Liberal leader Robert Bourassa.
"This gives hundreds of thousand of Quebeckers hope that another Quebec is possible," Mr. Khadir said to a cheering crowd after being declared the winner in the downtown Montreal riding of Mercier.
The results put Mr. Dumont at a crossroads. He was poised yesterday to hang on to a mere seven seats, a crushing setback for his ADQ, which was wiped clean from Montreal suburbs-the scene of a major breakthrough in 2007.
The party clung to a few seats in the Quebec City region, where federal Tories are also strong.
Mr. Dumont brought dozens of rookie members of the legislature to Quebec City after the ADQ's stunning advance in 2007, and he admitted in the midst of the election campaign that he made mistakes.
Mr. Dumont helped precipitate a budget crisis in 2007 that left Mr. Charest's minority on the verge of defeat and left town before it was resolved.
His reputation for offering spicy quotes in the place of policy substance became reinforced in official Opposition, where he was expected to deliver sharp policy critique instead of just grabbing attention as he had for the previous 13 years as a third party.
Mr. Dumont appeared to greet with equanimity the anticipated setback of yesterday's vote. He took a laid-back approach to the leader's debate in marked contrast to his opponent's stridency. He apologized in mid-campaign for all the mistakes he made as leader of the Official Opposition "I assume full responsibility for things that didn't work out and for any disappointment Quebeckers have felt," he said in his mea-culpa.
Mr. Dumont's close ties to Mr. Harper's Conservative and his refusal to immediately criticize unpopular proposals put forward by his Tory ally in Ottawa served to discredit the ADQ's promotion of greater autonomy for Quebec.
The closer Mr. Dumont was identified to the Conservatives the less impact he had in driving home his right-wing agenda on more private involvement in health care and education and tougher stand on welfare recipients. Ms. Marois led a relatively gaffe-free campaign, and delivered what was widely considered the strongest performance during the leaders' debate.
Still, her leadership was sabotaged early on by internal attacks within her own party. She was dogged by an image problem as a snob, and her early campaign was hobbled by a nasty squabble over a party nomination that ended up in a scuffle.
Confronted with rumours about fatigue during the campaign, she responded by challenging reporters to an early-morning speed-walk up Montreal's Mount Royal. The pre-dawn event turned into one of the few memorable moments of an otherwise lacklustre election race.
"I thought it was going to be an election about nothing," said Prof. Maioni. "But it turned out to be an important election - about stewardship through an economic crisis and stewardship through what is likely to be a political crisis in Ottawa. In that sense, it turned out to be an important election."
After a tumultuous first mandate where Mr. Charest picked fights with powerful Quebec interest groups, including public sector unions, he spent his second, minority mandate keeping a lower profile. He made history by selecting women for half his cabinet, a first in Canada, and deflecting controversy instead of courting it.