The End of Block Voting in Quebec? The Extent to Which Quebec Votes as a Block Has Been Steadily Declining

One of the more interesting results in the 2015 election was the Liberal resurgence in Quebec. Not since 1980 had the party won a majority of seats in the province and it was only the second time since 1980 that the party had a won more vote in Quebec than any other party (in 2000 won fewer seats than the Bloc Quebecois despite winning more votes). At the same time, the Liberal vote share in Quebec was remarkably low. Despite winning 40 seats (51%), the Liberals took just 36% of the popular vote. Four parties ended up being competitive in Quebec as the three major federal parties and the Bloc Quebecois all finished with more than 15% of the Quebec vote. The fragmentation of the vote suggests that left-right issues are becoming increasingly important to federal politics in Quebec. The presence of substantial numbers of voters in Quebec on the left and right of the political spectrum, coupled with the resiliency of the Boc Quebecois likely means and end to the phenomenon of Quebec voting a block for a single party.

Regional block voting is an important sign that the issues that are important to elections are regional. Every province or region contains left and right-wing voters. They may not be evenly distributed across the country, but no province is so dominated by the left or the right that a party can win the vast majority of votes by taking a particular left or right position. As was demonstrated in May, even a right-wing province such as Alberta has its fair share of left-wing voters. These left-right divides can become subordinate to regional concerns when elections are dominated by regional issues. Opinion on issues such as bilingualism, the power of provinces, and distinct recognition for Quebec is likely to break down along provincial or regional issues. When the most important issue in an election has to do with the way a particular region is treated by the rest of the country, voters in that region are likely to coalesce behind the party that is best able to demonstrate that it supports the region’s interests. Conversely parties that are seen as opposed to regions’ interests are likely to be shut out of the region. Even if voters in a particular region are split on the best way to address regional concerns (as Quebec was in the late 1990s when the Bloc Quebecois and Liberals split the province), they are likely to reject parties that fail to address the regions’ concerns. Through most of the 20th century, for example, the NDP was shut out of Quebec because of the extent to which its centralist views on federalism were at odds with Quebec’s interests. An examination of the extent to which voters in a region vote as a block can thus be an important indicator of the salience of regional issues.

The share of votes that the largest party in Quebec has one has declined steadily over time. Prior to the 1990s is was relatively common for the largest party in Quebec to take at least 50% of the vote in the province. The graph below shows that of the 15 elections between 1945 and 1988 the largest party in Quebec won at least 50% of the vote in 9 of them. In four years, 1949, 1953, 1979, and 1980, the largest party broke 60% with respect to popular vote in Quebec. In all four cases, the Liberals won large shares of the vote when Quebecois leaders (Louis St. Laurent and then Pierre Trudeau) ran against Progressive Conservative leaders who either showed little sensitivity to Quebec’s concern (as was the case with George Drew) or had limited links to Quebec (as was the case with Joe Clark). Since 1990, no party has manged to win a majority of the vote in Quebec. In 1997, 2008, and 2015 the share of the vote won by the largest party in Quebec dropped below 40%, something that only happened once between 1945 and 1988. Even the so-called “Orange Crush” that saw the NDP take a large number of Quebec seats in 2011 saw the NDP take fewer than votes than any of the largest parties in Quebec did in the elections between 1945 and 1988 other than 1962. The 2015 election was important in that it did not see Quebec vote for a single, pro-Quebec party. This trend had been developing over time, but was most pronounced in this election.

Vote Share of Largest Party in Quebec

When one looks at the strength of Quebec’s largest party compared to the strength of the largest party across the country, the 2015 election ends up looking more unique. The graph below shows that between 1945 and 2000, the strength of Canada’s largest party generally fluctuated between 40% and 50% of the vote, and then dipped below 40% in the elections that took place after 2000. Support for the largest party in Quebec has generally exceeded support for the largest party in Canada. The years between 1960s and 1980 stand out as years where this was especially the case. From the 1960s to the early 1980s, the Liberals were able to establish themselves as the defenders of Quebec’s interests in Canada. As a result they took a large share of the vote in the province. In 1984 and 1988, the Progressive Conservatives were able to take advantage of the Liberals’ alienation of Quebec (as a result of Trudeau’s patriation of the constitution without Quebec’s agreement) and cast themselves as the party willing to work to bring Quebec back into the constitution. Finally, in 1993, the Bloc Quebecois was able to capitalize on the Progressive Conservatives’ failure to bring into the constitution and win the votes of Quebec nationalists. The spikes in the share of the Quebec vote that the largest party in the province win coincide with a party being mobilize voters along Quebec-specific issues. The low vote shares won by the NDP in 2011 and the Liberals in 2015, by contrast, took place in elections were the importance of Quebec-specific issues were significantly lower than they had been in past elections.

Largest Party in Quebec Compared to Largesty Party in Canada

It is finally interesting to look at how the vote shares of the Conservatives and NDP in Quebec as they have evolved over time. The NDP and the Conservatives have never been particularly strong in Quebec issues (with the exception of Mulroney’s attempt to bring Quebec into the constitution in the 1980s). It would be difficult for either of these parties to grow in Quebec unless left/right issues increased their salience. The Conservative vote share actually remains relatively consistently around the low-teen to 30% range, with the exception of spikes under Diefenbaker (when the Liberals collapsed in Quebec) and under Mulroney. The Conservative vote share in Quebec in the 2000s and 2010s does not appear all that out of the ordinary compared to the party’s previous numbers in the province. The NDP in contrast sees two significant periods of growth. First in the early 1960s the party goes from barely any support at all in Quebec to just under 10%, Second, through the 2000s the party goes from under 5% to 40% of four elections (with the largest growth coming in 2011). In 2015 the NDP’s vote share dropped remarkably, but still was around 10% higher than it had been in any election prior to 2011. The stagnant Conservative vote share does not do much to suggest the growth in the importance of left-right issues, but the fact that the NDP has made significant gains in the province of the 2000s and 2010s is important.

Conservative and NDP Vote Shares in Quebec

The growth of the NDP in Quebec suggests that the issues that are important to Quebecers and the positions that they hold on those issues are becoming more diverse. Unlike the Bloc Quebecois or the Liberals, the NDP does not have a history of being a pro-Quebec party. Their ability to claim to represent Quebecers are nob-Quebec issues is quite limited. The NDP has to rely on its ability to appeal to Quebecers on left-right issues in order to win votes. At the same time, the NDP’s dominance on Quebec in 2011 may have been somewhat overstated. While the party won a large number of seats in the province, it also recorded one of the lowest vote shares of a largest Quebec party since 1945. In only five elections did Quebec’s largest party do worse. The Bloc Quebecois, despite winning only 4 seats managed to take 23% of the vote in that election while the Conservatives took 17% and the Liberals 14%. The fact that the Bloc Quebecois still managed to take almost a quarter of the vote in 2011 means that, even though left-right issues were growing in importance, issues surrounding Quebec’s place in Canada were still important to a significant number of voters. The vote in Quebec in 2011 was a lot more divided than the number of seats that each party took suggested, demonstrating that views Quebec about the issues that were important to the election and the positions that Quebecers had on those issues were diverse.

The 2015 election highlights the extent to which voting in Quebec is becoming fractured. The NDP despite losing large numbers of seats in Quebec still managed to take a quarter of the vote. This suggests that it was still able to use its position on the left of the political spectrum to appeal to Quebec voters. The Liberal party also did not make much of Quebec specific issues in its policy platform. With the exception of a discussion of the Clarity Act in the Macleans debate, the Liberal appeared mostly to try to appeal to Quebecers on left-right issues rather than by claiming to defend the place of Quebec within Canada. The Conservatives managed to pull 16% of the Quebec vote, which is consistent with the low but significant share of vote that has gone to Canada’s right-wing parties over Quebec’s history. Finally, the Bloc Quebecois, despite their decline, demonstrated that Quebec nationalism is still relevant to a significant minority of voters in Quebec. They took just under 1/5 of the vote. While that number is small, it is still significant. It is enough support to continue to win seats and to play an influential role debates within Quebec politics.

For most of the 20th century winning in Quebec was the key to winning Canadian federal elections. The Liberals dominated elections in the 20th century largely because they were able to count on large shares of seats from the province. The Progressive Conservatives were only able to win majority governments when they themselves were able to win large shares of votes in the province, in 1958, 1984, and 1988. In the 1990s and 2000s the Liberals and later the Conservatives were able to weaken the influence of Quebec over election results by winning large numbers of seats in Ontario. The influence of Quebec in future elections may also be limited by the decrease in block voting in the province. The emergence of the Bloc Quebecois in the 1990s made it difficult for the Liberals to win majorities if Quebec voters even in elections that were about Quebec-specific issues. The rise of the NDP through the 2000s has fractured Quebec politics to an even greater degree, and raises questions as to the extent to which Quebec-specific issues are influencing vote choice in the province. The consequences of this are mixed. As long as the Quebec vote remains fractured, it is unlikely that the largest party in Quebec will be able to pick up to 50-60 seats that they have been able to in the past. This will likely reduce the extent to which outcomes in Quebec determine which party forms government. Additionally, the distribution of these votes across ridings in the province means that candidates can expect to win with fewer and fewer votes as the vote becomes more divided. This will make small changes in vote shares more important, and likely will lead to significant swings in the number of Quebec seats each party wins from election to election.

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