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Why Trudeau’s political survival hinges on Quebec

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One of the NDP’s top strategists back then recalls the shock felt by some victorious candidates. “There are lots of people who never — and I mean never — thought they’d be elected to Parliament,” said Karl Bélanger, who’s now a political analyst.

Bélanger attributes the sudden NDP rise in 2011 to Quebecers’ fatigue with the former dominant party: the Bloc Québécois. Competitive in every election to this day, the Bloc promotes Quebec’s separation from Canada; exists primarily to lobby for the province’s causes; and has no aspiration of actually governing.

Bélanger says one facilitating factor is Canada’s first-past-the-post parliamentary voting system. In a district-by-district battle for seats involving four parties, tiny movements in support can have disproportionately seismic effects .

Bélanger explains the math this way: A party polling at 18 percent provincially wins almost nothing in a four-way race. At 25 percent, it can expect to win lots of seats. Every additional point brings new seats, and at 40 percent it’s won a landslide.

But there’s a second factor specific to Quebec: it’s a legacy of the battle over independence.

A sizable minority of voters in the French-speaking province have always wanted to create their own country, and that issue monopolized the political debate in the 1980s and 1990s. Consumed by that existential clash at home, many voters gazed with glassy-eyed indifference at faraway Ottawa and its comparatively mundane debates about things like marginal tax rates and military spending.

“Federal politics in Quebec became less polarized. People considered it of secondary importance,” said Pierre Martin, a political-science professor at the University of Montreal.

“As it was less of a priority, their choices seemed to have less consequence, and they could be more flexible in switching from one party to another.”

Third, there’s a slow-rolling realignment under way.

The independence debate has been shoved to the back burner and Quebecers are test-driving new political parties. They’ve now voted en masse for three different parties in the last three federal elections, and also elevated new parties provincially.

Martin, whose area of specialty is American politics, adds a final factor that makes party allegiances far weaker in Quebec than in the U.S.: The national parties and provincial ones are different.

While this is true in several Canadian provinces, it’s especially so in Quebec, where the province’s governing party, Coalition Avenir Québec, was created a few years ago and has no federal equivalent. It’s the same with the No. 3 party, Québec Solidaire; and the No. 2 party, the Quebec Liberals, are a distinct provincial entity with only informal ties to Trudeau’s federal party carrying the same name.

That’s a huge difference from a place, like the U.S., with a culture of strong partisan identity in which people vote a straight ticket from the White House down to the local mayor.

Pollster David Coletto says there’s no concept of straight-ticket voting in Quebec.

“If you’re a Democrat at the federal level, you’re probably a Democrat at the state level,” said Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data. “Those structural factors help explain why Quebec is so willing, at any given time, to vote for a completely different party.”

The NDP suffered a massive loss in Quebec in 2015, and it wasn’t just because of the death of the party’s popular leader, Jack Layton, from cancer. What caused a wild swing in the votes was a court fight over whether Muslim women could take the oath of Canadian citizenship wearing the face-covering niqab.

The NDP defended niqab-wearing women; it was not the popular position in Quebec. Seeing an opening, the then-governing Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois pounded the NDP for it. They succeeded — the NDP’s support collapsed instantly.

By the time the dust cleared from that bombardment, another center-left leader, previously in third place, ignored on the sidelines of that battle, emerged unscathed.

Several weeks later, Trudeau was prime minister of Canada.

“Trudeau slipped under the radar,” Bélanger said. “When the storm cleared, the ballot question was still, ‘Who can defeat [Conservative prime minister] Stephen Harper?’ The NDP was out of the game, and people turned to Justin Trudeau.”

The current campaign carries some echoes of 2015. Minority religious rights remain a dominant political issue in the province.

This time, the most-discussed issue in Quebec politics is a law whose effect is to ban religious minorities, particularly Muslim women, from wearing religious headwear in public jobs.

The Bloc is trying to use the issue to get back its old prominence. It wants Trudeau and others to commit to never challenging that provincial law in court.

Trudeau, meanwhile, is trying desperately to keep the story out of the election headlines. He says he disagrees with the law, is pleased it’s being challenged in a provincial court, and won’t say anything about what he’ll do after the election.

Some pundits view that as a disgracefully equivocal stance from the leader of a party, the Liberals, and the son of a former prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, that enshrined minority rights in Canada’s modern Constitution.

But Martin says it could be politically suicidal for Trudeau to throw himself into this fight now.

“If this issue becomes a big one for the Liberals, they will lose out. Because most Quebecers like the law,” Martin said. “But it’s unpredictable, in a four-way race.”

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