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COMMENTARY: How Quebec voters will make election 2019 a wild ride

ABOVE: The role Quebec plays in Canada's federal elections

Last week, my Ipsos colleague Sean Simpson eloquently argued that whoever wants to occupy the government benches after the Oct. 21 election needs to win the battle of the Toronto suburbs.

He is probably right. However, Quebec voters may once again provide some of the most compelling storylines come election night.

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The Liberals, Conservatives and Bloc Québécois all have high hopes of improving on their 2015 totals in the province, thanks to the declining fortunes of the NDP. But aside from the strategic importance of Quebec from a seat-count perspective, what makes the province such a compelling region is the higher volatility of Quebec voters than we have witnessed in previous federal elections.

In 2011, the NDP started the campaign with a mere 13 per cent of Quebecers saying they planned to vote NDP. The party held only one seat in the province, that of Thomas Mulcair. Ipsos’ last poll of the 2011 campaign saw the NDP garner an astonishing 42 per cent of the intended vote, a jump of 29 percentage points.

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Many doubted this spectacular jump in voting intentions would hold up on voting day, May 2, 2011, but it did: the party reaped 43 per cent of the votes in Quebec and won an astounding 59 of the 75 seats available at the time. The Bloc Québécois was decimated, going from 49 seats to only four.

Four years later, in 2015, another spectacular shift happened. This time, the NDP was on the losing end, dropping from 58 seats at the start of the campaign to only 16 after the votes were tallied on Oct. 19, 2015. By contrast, the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau, which entered the campaign with only seven seats and a mere 24 per cent of projected voting intentions, won 40 of 78 seats in Quebec.

What makes such massive swings possible in Quebec is both simple and complex. Simple, in that when it comes to federal elections, Quebec voters do not make their choices based on the more traditional progressive-versus-conservative axis that guides — at least in very general terms — voters in other provinces. And complex because of Quebec nationalism: this additional axis complicates things dramatically for federal parties and for observers of Quebec politics. The nationalism axis often crosses the progressive-versus-conservative one at weird and sometimes unpredictable angles.

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Did the NDP suddenly sweep the province in 2011, mainly because of its progressive policies and ideals? Not really. Its support in Quebec rested on a highly eclectic coalition of voters from all sides of the left-right political spectrum, many of whom were first and foremost staunch nationalists.

These 2011 voters were looking to oust the Conservative government at the time while also wanting to move away from the Bloc Québécois after its 20 years of dominance in the province. Then-NDP Leader Jack Layton spoke eloquently in French, knew the province well and could count on Mulcair as a solid right-hand man in Quebec. The party reaped the rewards of this strong desire for change.

But this heterogeneous coalition crumbled when it was seriously tested for the first time in 2015. The main cause of the NDP’s troubles in the province was its stance regarding the ban on face coverings in citizenship ceremonies. When the issue suddenly landed in the campaign, Mulcair, who had replaced Layton as leader, voiced his opposition to the proposed ban. It was a natural progressive position for the NDP and its leader, but the more nationalist faction of the NDP’s Quebec base left the party in droves as a result, costing it a third of its support in Quebec in a mere two weeks.

READ MORE: Parties vie for ‘vulnerable’ NDP seats in Quebec

Ironically, this benefited the Liberal Party, which held the same position as the NDP on face coverings in 2015. The Trudeau Liberals were not confronted with the same nationalist expectations as the NDP and, as a result, got away with a position that ran counter to the will of a strong majority of voters in the province. Secularism was ultimately not the ballot-box issue in Quebec that year. It was all about change.

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Fast forward to the current campaign. Until last week, voting intentions had been stable in the province for over a year, with the Liberals enjoying a comfortable lead of 10 to 15 points over the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois while the NDP trailed behind.

Yet this started to change following the first French debate in October. Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet performed very well that night, lending further support to the general impression that the Bloc was running a strong campaign and should be taken seriously. As a result, the Bloc is suddenly rising in Quebec, garnering 30 per cent support in a poll conducted from Oct. 4 to 7.

READ MORE: Tories, Liberals tied ahead of leaders’ debate, Bloc rising in Quebec, Ipsos poll finds

For the first time since 1996, the Bloc is not led by Gilles Duceppe, giving the party a newer, younger look. Unaffected by deep regional divisions in Canada, the Bloc has easily aligned itself with Quebec public opinion on nearly all key issues, even if some positions may seem odd from a national perspective.

The Bloc can hold conservative views on issues like secularism (Bill 21) and irregular migrants while pushing a more progressive agenda on climate change, health care and other key priorities. Other national parties do not have this luxury.

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This ability to unabashedly defend what is popular in Quebec puts Blanchet in an enviable position relative to other leaders, which will likely be on display again during the second French debate on Thursday.

Keep an eye on the Bloc Québécois for the next two weeks, as its success in the province may well decide whether the next government can count on a majority of seats or not. Stay tuned.

Sebastien Dallaire is general manager of Ipsos in Quebec.