It's been a topsy-turvy campaign.
Premier Jean Charest was supposed be a formidable campaigner. He wasn't. His campaign was dull and erratic. Parti Québécois Leader André Boisclair was supposed to lose his temper, and his nerve. He didn't. His performance, while not stellar, greatly exceeded expectations. And Mario Dumont? Well, little Mario was supposed to play the smart but lonely politician with whom the disenchanted and the undecided would park their votes - until voting day, when people would dutifully return to one of the two major parties. But Mario Dumont was the star of the campaign.
And the result may well be something Quebec has not had in more than a century - a minority government. The parties are in a dead heat and the pollsters will not venture to say whether the winner will be the Liberal Party or the PQ.
What is sure is that Mr. Dumont's Action Démocratique du Québec is a force to reckon with, and the likelihood of having another referendum on sovereignty is weaker than ever. Even if the PQ manage to form a minority government the party would be unable to pursue its sovereigntist agenda for lack of support from the other two parties.
By exposing some of the deep undercurrents of the province's hinterland, the campaign laid to rest several myths about the province, especially the one that describes Quebec as the most left-leaning province, the "most progressive in Canada," as many Quebeckers love to brag. The ascent of the ADQ showed that large swaths of the province hunger for centre-right policies - for lump sum payments for parents who don't use the public daycare, for a leaner government, a return to traditional values, restrictions on immigration and conformity to certain standards. The party that is gaining strength in Quebec is a close cousin of Stephen Harper's Conservatives.
The ADQ is expected to make huge inroads in Quebec City and its suburbs and in the semi-rural regions in central Quebec. It's no coincidence that this is where the Conservatives won their 10 seats in 2006 (and no coincidence that these regions were the strongholds of Maurice Duplessis's old Union Nationale, in the 40s and 50s). The ADQ, however, is spreading farther, as far as the middle-class suburbs around Montreal.
This wave might not translate into many ridings, though, because the ADQ, behind the popular figure of its leader, is an empty shell. It has no organization, no money, and some of its instant candidates were the laughing stock of the campaign with their outrageous opinions. As Mr. Harper once was forced to do, Mr. Dumont had to silence some of his undisciplined candidates - or rather, those candidates who were candid enough to say aloud what their colleagues would cautiously whisper behind closed doors.
There are some admirable points about the ADQ: It is a fresh voice, less technocratic, closer to people's daily lives - a contrast to the other parties that tend to repeat the tired old lines inherited from the 1960's Quiet Revolution. The ADQ is the only party that dares propose substantial changes to health-care services. But it has distressing aspects too.
Keep in mind that several months ago, the ADQ was so low in the polls that everybody was predicting its demise. What, then, triggered its surge? Just one thing: Mario Dumont's denunciation of what many people saw as the excessive demands by some minority religious groups and his condemnation of "accommodements raisonnables" (the "reasonable accommodations" that a pluralistic society makes to allow minor deviations to majority rule). Mr. Dumont gave a respectable voice to a widespread, yet relatively hidden, resentment against visible minorities. Suddenly, the thin veneer of political correctness disappeared.
One ADQ candidate, in a reference to praying Muslims, lashed out at "the immigrants who kiss the asphalt." Some tabloids transformed small events into horror stories: Women wearing veils would be allowed to vote without showing their face! The owner of a "cabane à sucre" was serving beans without pork to accommodate their Jewish and Muslim clientele. Beans without pork! Faceless women in niqab invading Quebec!
Another myth that this campaign destroyed is that Quebec is a close-knit family bound by language and history. False. There is Montreal, the only cosmopolitan centre in the province, and there is the Rest of Quebec. Part of the ADQ's success stems from deep-seated resentment against Montreal. For a substantial number of voters, today will be a day of revenge. Revenge against the established parties, revenge against those city slickers from Montreal.