COVER

A case of shifting political loyalties

In one Quebec riding, leadership will be the issue

March 16 1998
COVER

A case of shifting political loyalties

In one Quebec riding, leadership will be the issue

March 16 1998

A case of shifting political loyalties

In one Quebec riding, leadership will be the issue

Parti Québécois MNA Claude Lachance summarizes three decades of political fortunes in his Bellechasse riding without hesitating once. Even for a former history teacher, that is an accomplishment— voters in this rural riding, which stretches from just south of Quebec City to the Maine border, are a capricious lot. During the past eight provincial elections, they have voted in MNAs from three different political parties, including the now-defunct Union Nationale. “It’s a riding that hasn’t had political loyalties for some years,” says Lachance. He should know. Narrowly elected in 1981 by 364 votes, Lachance lost to Liberal candidates in the next two elections—once by a 191-vote margin— before regaining the seat in 1994 by over 2,000 votes. And with an election looming, Lachance is bracing for yet another close race. Considering past patterns, he concedes, “the next time the vote may be tight.”

Mostly francophone, Bellechasse is the type of riding where the Liberals need to do well in order to stand a chance against Premier Lucien Bouchard’s Parti Québécois. The PQ holds 75 seats compared with 46 for

the Liberals, whose support is concentrated in the Montreal area. Regardless of who succeeds Daniel Johnson as Liberal leader, the party faces an uphill battle in the election, which is not expected before the fall. But some residents in Lachance’s riding predict that leadership will play a huge role. “With Jean Charest, the Liberals have a chance to put the heat on Bouchard,” maintains Jean-Guy Leveillé, a high-school geography teacher in Ste-Claire, population 3,200, one of the biggest towns in the riding. Sitting at the counter of a roadside diner, Leveillé adds: “And without Charest, I think that Bouchard will win the election hands down.”

In the small towns that dot this area—the third-largest porkproducing region in the province—that is a common sentiment. “Mr. Bouchard is popular,” maintains Pierre Fortier, 44, a clerk in a Ste-Claire credit union. But, he notes, “people vote for the man”— and adds that the Liberals need an equally charismatic leader. Issues could help as well. Despite their high approval rating in opinion polls—recently pegged at 52 per cent compared with the Liberals’ 38 per cent support—the PQ has ruffled feathers with its deficitslashing agenda. And although Bellechasse is doing relatively well—

the local unemployment rate is estimated at eight per cent, compared with the provincial average of 11.4 per cent—there are complaints. At the local bingo hall in nearby St-Anselme, a group of women show little interest in discussing politics. But when one 66year-old gets fired up over health-care cutbacks—so far, the PQ government has sliced $1.6 billion from the health and social service sector—the others quickly warm to the subject. A few blocks away, at the village’s chronic care facility, discontent also simmers. ‘We are rushed all the time,” complains attendant Lyne Couture, 43, who voted for the PQ in 1994, but says she is unlikely to do so again. Couture finds it frustrating that she can’t spend more time caring for patients—but does not expect more staff to be hired because of the cuts.

In spite of some opposition to the government’s reforms, Claudette Morin, the head of the Bellechasse PQ riding association, believes the party’s support is still strong. “I think everyone adheres to the zero-deficit target,” asserts Morin, referring to the PQ’s plan to eliminate the provincial deficit by 2000. But among many Bellechasse voters, the prospect of another sovereignty referendum is a

different story. (In the 1995 referendum, a slim majority in the riding voted No—53 per cent versus 47 per cent for the Yes side.) “People don’t want any more referendums,” says Dominique Veer, 32, a Ste-Claire truck driver. He maintains that, in the riding, most people are satisfied with the Bouchard government. But, he adds, “they want the government to take care of the real problems, the economic and social problems.”

Lachance has heard the refrain. “When we talk with people, even those who voted Yes,” he says, “several tell us that we should move on to something else.” But the PQ is not about to abandon its cause, he maintains, adding that, for the party, sovereignty is “the cement that holds the people together.” As for the election, Lachance points out that history may be on the PQ’s side—Quebecers tend to elect governments for two mandates, and the PQ’s first began in 1994 when the party ousted the Liberals under Johnson. The Liberals can only hope that Quebec voters on the whole turn out to be as free-spirited as those in Bellechasse.

BRENDA BRANSWELL in Ste-Claire