MONTREAL—If he is to succeed in his bid to become federal Conservative leader, Jean Charest needs to win big in Quebec.
Without overwhelming support from his home province, the former premier does not have a hope of finishing first or perhaps even second in the Sept. 10 leadership election.
On paper, the support of almost all of the party’s Quebec caucus should translate into a formidable head start.
Charest’s caucus team boasts some first-class organizers, including Andrew Scheer’s former lieutenant, Alain Rayes. And in Quebec conservative circles, the name of former Action démocratique du Québec leader Gérard Deltell carries a significant amount of influence.
Then there is the old blue Quebec network whose members — including former prime minister Brian Mulroney and his loyalists — still see Charest, notwithstanding his spell as Quebec Liberal leader and premier, as one of their own.
And yet, despite all of that, Charest would be well-advised not to count his Quebec chickens before they hatch. The latest developments on the province’s political landscape could translate into a tougher battle than he had bargained for.
Over the past three months, Quebec’s fledgling provincial Conservative party has been on a roll of sorts.
Since the New Year, its fortunes have improved to the point that it is now competitive with the parties that make up the opposition in the National Assembly.
A Mainstreet poll on voting intentions published last month placed the provincial Conservatives in second place behind the ruling Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ). A handful of other polls reported the party was in a statistical tie with the Quebec Liberals and Québec Solidaire.
Those numbers speak at least in part to the weakness of the two parties that dominated the scene during the decades-long battle over the province’s political future.
If a provincial election were held this month, the Parti Québécois — once the admiral vessel of the sovereignty movement — would have sunk to fifth place. In some polls, its support is down to single digits.
Even among the anglophone and allophone voters that make up their base, the Quebec Liberals Charest used to lead are plagued by a lack of momentum.
The federalist party is in a close battle for second place with Québec Solidaire and the Conservatives in the popular vote, and lags 10 to 20 points behind the leading CAQ in voting intentions overall.
Which brings one to Éric Duhaime, the political insider turned pundit who has undertaken to put a provincial Conservative party on the Quebec map.
Duhaime’s name will be familiar to veteran Parliament Hill observers. He toiled in Gilles Duceppe’s office in the early days of the latter’s tenure as Bloc Québécois leader, and then moved to the Canadian Alliance where he served as an adviser to Stockwell Day. More recently, he made his name as a leading right-wing talk radio commentator.
When it comes to debates, he hails from the same take-no-prisoners league as federal Conservative leadership front-runner Pierre Poilievre.
The similarities do not stop there.
Like Poilievre, Duhaime has milked popular fatigue with the pandemic-related restrictions for momentum. And like Poilievre, he is trying to turn that into a larger mainstream populist movement, spurred on by the notion that governments trample personal freedoms.
Over his first year as leader, the party’s rolls have gone from 600 to 51,000 members.
Many of them hail from the ranks of federal Conservative sympathizers. An Angus Reid poll released last month revealed that more than half of those who voted for former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole in Quebec last fall support Duhaime provincially.
This is a conservative reservoir that Charest has little hope of tapping for his leadership purposes.
From Duhaime’s perspective, the former premier’s track record is an illustration of everything he urges his followers to oppose.
The recent surge in support for the provincial Conservatives has already attracted much attention in Quebec’s political circles, as well as speculation as to whether it can be sustained in the fall election.
It has started to affect the pre-election positioning of the parties — starting with Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec.
The CAQ continues to tower over its competition among voters. With six months to go, Legault and his party remain the front-runners for government in the fall election.
But until recently, the CAQ never had to worry about competition from anywhere other than the left.
Indeed, at this time last year, conventional wisdom had it that the strength of the centre-right CAQ made it unlikely that a competitive Conservative party could emerge to its right.
Few expected that Quebec, post-pandemic, would feature an on-the-move libertarian right-wing party.
For Charest, the timing of this development could not be less welcome.
His caucus supporters argue a Poilievre victory would lead to electoral disaster in Quebec in the next federal election. The rising fortunes of a Poilievre-style provincial Conservative party may suggest otherwise.
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