Bloc’s success paved the way for NDP’s surge in Quebec

A seismic shift seems to be taking place in federal politics, with the NDP poised to take second place. And it all started in Quebec.

Élections fédérales - 2011 - le BQ et le Québec

A seismic shift seems to be taking place in federal politics, with the NDP poised to take second place. And it all started in Quebec.
Who would have thought that Jack Layton, the last to jump into the election fray, would be the campaign’s biggest winner? Who would have predicted that this surge would start in a province where the NDP has won only two seats in the past half-century?
Since January, the four parties had held steady positions in Quebec opinion polls, with the Bloc around 40 per cent, the Liberals and Conservatives around 20 per cent, and the NDP at about 16 per cent. Then, even before the debates, the NDP suddenly started to surge. In many polls, it now stands first with about 35 per cent, while the Bloc barely manages to hold onto its lead among francophones.
Why this sudden NDP surge in Quebec?
Before I go on, it should be noted that the actual seat count on Monday may not reflect the polling numbers. The NDP’s support is diffuse and it may lead in many cases to Conservative gains over the Bloc, or Bloc gains over Liberals. Also, even if Quebecers have fallen for “Jack-mania,” they may be unimpressed with the largely unknown local NDP candidates.
Still, the NDP breakthrough cannot be dismissed, and some common explanations for it make sense. The fact that the NDP’s leftist policy orientation is close to the Quebec mainstream is nothing new.
Neither is the dismal state of the Liberal party’s organization in Quebec or Michael Ignatieff’s inability to rebuild his party’s tarnished brand.
The never-ending debates on the Bloc’s raison d’être or the obvious challenge of garnering a majority of seats in a seventh consecutive election may also be good reasons to explain the rise of another credible alternative to the Tories.
All these explanations may lead some to conclude that this election is the beginning of the end for the Bloc. It may also embolden some New Democrats to think that their party is best suited to assume the Bloc’s dominant position.
Indeed, after leading the pack for so long, the Bloc’s descent from 40 per cent to the low 30s or worse has to be interpreted as a sign of weakness.
But is this weakness permanent? Is it a sign of failure? Not necessarily.
In fact, the sudden NDP surge may be interpreted — albeit counterintuitively — as a reflection of the Bloc’s successes on many fronts.
First, the Bloc has been successful in anchoring its position firmly on the left of the political spectrum. While it lost a few old-line blue nationalists in the process, it gained in coherence. Apart from the national question, however, this tended to blur the policy lines between it and its opposition partners, particularly the NDP.
Second, because of its longevity, the Bloc was due to pay one day or other for its lack of new blood, from the leadership down.
Third, what is striking about the NDP surge is its suddenness, and the fact that there was no sign of it before the campaign, although all the conditions for it were already in place. This shows how successful the Bloc has been in disconnecting a large chunk of the Quebec public from the federal scene. How else to explain why so many voters changed their minds so fast based on so little information about the NDP’s actual policy proposals?
Perhaps this disconnection explains why so few voters have been lured by Stephen Harper’s invitation to Quebec’s “regions” to seize “power,” or by the Liberals’ long-running assertion that only they could form a government to replace the Tories. This disconnection also translates into a lack of firm party commitment at the federal level for a large part of the Quebec electorate, which makes rapid shifts all but inevitable.
Finally, the Bloc has been successful in defining the theme of the campaign: defeating Harper. Now that another party provides a credible means to that end, Gilles Duceppe is desperately trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.
In fact, many federalist voters agreed with the Bloc’s initial goal, but they wouldn’t vote for sovereignists. Once the NDP bandwagon started rolling, they were more than happy to jump aboard. Now some polls suggest that nearly half of non-francophones may be inclined to vote for Layton.
As the election draws near, there may be debate as to the size of the national trend toward the NDP, but there is agreement on the fact that the shift started in Quebec.
Perhaps the Bloc has managed to turn the Quebec electorate into the Forrest Gump of Canadian politics: completely disconnected, but setting the trend.
Pierre Martin is a professor of political science at the Université de Montréal.

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Pierre Martin est professeur titulaire au Département de science politique de l’Université de Montréal et directeur de la Chaire d’études politiques et économiques américaines (CÉPÉA). Il est également membre du Groupe d’étude et de recherche sur la sécurité internationale (GERSI)

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