How will the CAQ use its balance-of-power role in Quebec’s National Assembly?

Jesse Michaels
Canada Politics

Living out here on the Left Coast, I don't pretend to have a deep understanding of the nuances of Quebec's political culture.

But like most political junkies, I'm fascinated by what comes next after Tuesday's raucous election in the province.

Much of the post-vote attention has focused on what the Parti Quebecois' minority victory will mean to the province and to Canada.

The numbers suggest we also ought to be looking at the implications of the Liberals' close second-place finish and the role of the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) as the balance of power in the National Assembly.

According to CBC News, the final results give the PQ a slim edge in the legislature — 54 seats to 50 for the Liberals — which drops to three if a PQ MNA is elected Speaker.

The PQ polled just under 32 per cent of the popular vote, less than a percentage point ahead of a clapped-out, three-term Liberal party headed by an unpopular leader.

Some pundits had speculated the CAQ, headed by former Pequiste minister François Legault, could push the Liberals down to third place but the new party ended up capturing 19 seats, with its 27 per cent vote in Quebec City, central Quebec and a couple of suburban Montreal ridings.

Quebecers clearly were skeptical about the millionaire businessman's mix of promises, promoting economic development and cutting the size of government while pledging to increase teachers' salaries and ensure every Quebecer had a family doctor.

Legault also campaigned on shelving the sovereignty question and said if the PQ held a referendum he'd vote No despite his past as a separatist.

[ Related: Five questions for Francois Legault ]

Now comes the hard part for Legault and his new party, which didn't exist a year ago.

Toronto Sun columnist Peter Worthington said Wednesday his party's future seems brighter than his 19 seats suggest.

"The CAQ hold the keys to another election when they feel it's warranted," he wrote.

Voters will expect the Liberals and CAQ to give the PQ a chance to govern. There's no appetite to go back to the polls anytime soon.

But how willing will Legault be to work with premier-designate Pauline Marois, given his history as a PQ defector and his fundamental opposition to much of the its separatist and social-democratic agenda? commentator Duncan Cameron cited PQ strategist Jean-François Lisée, who compared Marois' situation to that of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his minority government in 2008. She should be able to push legislation through the National Assembly unless the Liberals and CAQ agree to bring down the government.

"Much as the federal Liberals were not ready to join the NDP and defeat Harper, the Quebec Liberals will not be interested in a rematch election, at least until the Charest leadership question is settled," Duncan wrote.

Of course, after losing his riding, Charest is certainly on his way out. The Liberals won't want to jump into a new campaign with only an interim leader at the helm. They'll want a fresh, charismatic new face to re-energize a party worn out by almost a decade in power, with all its baggage including the taint of corruption.

[ Related: Another hit to the Liberal brand as Quebec Liberals ousted from office ]

And there's no real incentive for Legault to topple the PQ soon either. He needs time to expand the CAQ's base and demonstrate it can operate in the National Assembly.

But if Marois pushes her sovereigntist agenda too hard in government, if she lacks finesse, temptation might build for the Liberals and CAQ to get together and pull the plug.