MONTREAL - Montrealers granted incumbent Mayor Gerald Tremblay a third mandate on Sunday as they collectively shrugged their shoulders at startling allegations of widespread corruption and a tainted political culture at city hall.
Less than 40 per cent of Montrealers bothered to vote after a messy campaign that included a wave of scandals that has sparked police probes into contract tendering as well as calls for a public inquiry into the construction industry.
Tremblay grabbed less than 40 per cent of the popular vote, but that was enough to defeat longtime Parti Quebecois minister Louise Harel and third-place finisher Richard Bergeron.
The polls had indicated a tight three-way race going into the vote but Tremblay and his well-financed Union Montreal party appeared to benefit from a split in the vote between Harel and Bergeron.
Harel, a member of the provincial legislature for more than 25 years before plunging into municipal politics, focused on the low turnout as she addressed her supporters in Montreal.
“I think we can be disappointed, legitimately disappointed, at the turnout,” said Harel, who was hoping for a massive voter backlash against Tremblay to propel her to victory.
“But let's agree that they did not vote for the status quo because two-thirds of them voted against the status quo.”
Tremblay, 67, who has been at the helm for the past eight years and whose administration was at the centre of a number of scandals, will now have the task of sprucing up Montreal's tarnished image.
Corruption dominated the campaign and much of the past several weeks was highlighted by the three candidates trying to jockey for the position as the best person to root out financial skullduggery.
Voters were subjected to a daily helping of stories about Mob influence in politics, inflated construction contracts, widespread corruption and Mafia infiltration at city hall.
The almost daily revelations served to tarnish Montreal's reputation nationally, culminating last week with a sensational headline splashed across the cover of Maclean's magazine: Montreal Is a Corrupt, Crumbling, Mob-Ridden Disgrace.
Tremblay was dogged by corruption scandals from the get-go, including one involving a now cancelled $355-million water-meter contract - the biggest ever handed out by the city.
Tremblay claimed he did not know about the irregularities in the contract and tried to reinvent himself as the man to fight corruption at city hall.
Harel, his 63-year-old separatist challenger, promised to take a broom to city hall, but her Vision Montreal party also found itself embroiled in the same scandal.
Benoit Labonte, Harel's right-hand man, took money from a businessman involved in the water-meter row to finance his leadership campaign years earlier.
But on his way out the door, the No. 2 man in the opposition party let fly a torrent of allegations about influence-peddling and dubious fundraising practices he says extended to all levels of Quebec politics.
In a tell-all interview, Labonte claimed there was a Mafia-style system at city hall - claims his opponents have either denied or questioned.
On top of that, there was a bombshell report of extensive Mob influence in road repair that prompted numerous calls for a public inquiry and triggered a $26.8-million provincial police investigation.
One report alleged the Mob controlled 80 per cent of contracts doled out by the city of Montreal, and that construction companies gave the Cosa Nostra a slice of the action for every deal.
The shock investigative piece by Radio-Canada also alleged the companies engaged in collusion that drove up the price of projects 35 per cent and that competitors who didn't play along were threatened.
It was against this backdrop that Bergeron, leader of the upstart Projetc Montreal party, tried to set himself apart from the veteran politicians and portray himself as doing politics differently.
Bergeron, 54, acknowledged he was fighting anonymity, and media often picked up on his quirky and controversial banter, including his past musings about 9-11 conspiracies and his comments to a local columnist about the benefits of smoking for staying in good health.
Bergeron says he regretted the 9-11 comments and has claimed the smoking comments were merely a joke.
But as questions of ethics and corruption swirled, Bergeron found himself a strong ally in retired judge John Gomery, who headed the federal sponsorship scandal inquiry and became honorary chairman of Projet Montreal's fundraising campaign.
Gomery stated it was time for another inquiry - although such calls have faced resistance from the provincial and federal governments.
The Quebec government has said it is acting to clean up municipal politics in the province.
Municipal Affairs Minister Laurent Lessard said the he expects to start holding meetings with newly elected officials to discuss ethics and allegations of corruption.
Voters turned out in more than 800 municipalities across the province, including Quebec City where incumbent Regis Labeaume was re-elected with a convincing majority.
In Laval, Gilles Vaillancourt, who has been mayor since 1989 and involved in municipal politics for 36 years, easily won a sixth mandate in the city north of Montreal.
In Longueuil, former Bloc Quebecois MP Caroline St-Hilaire, a newcomer to municipal politics, upset the Parti municipal de Longueuil and first-time mayoral candidate Jacques Goyette.