Stephen Harper's Quebec coalition

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Jean Charest has rolled out the pre-election advertising, presented star candidates to the press, and the Quebec Liberal Party just got the polling numbers it wanted to see (at 36 per cent, a five point advance over the Parti Québecois, according to Leger Marketing) so a late March, early April election seems certain.

The battle on the hustings between the new PQ leader André Boisclair and Charest is much anticipated. It looks to be personal, dredging up cocaine use by Boisclair when he was a cabinet minister, and the tone will get nasty quickly. With the Liberals trailing the PQ in the polls for most of its time in government, the PQ expected to exact easy revenge for its defeat at the hands of Charest four years ago.

At one point, the PQ had the support of over 50 per cent of Quebec voters. Now, Boisclair appears to be the weakest PQ leader ever, staggering under the weight of carrying the national aspirations of his party, and the Liberals have reason to hope a strong campaign will offset their poor performance in government.

The election has a lot riding on it. Boisclair and the PQ are anti-federalist, and want to hold a winning third referendum. A PQ electoral victory would put the national unity issue front and centre in Ottawa, giving Stéphane Dion a considerable advantage (given his public ownership of the unity file) in the next federal election, anticipated as early as this spring.

Stephen Harper wants to help Jean Charest, a former federal Conservative leader, claim a second mandate. Harper is prepared to risk alienating some supporters west of the Ottawa river to do it, by giving a public profile to his plan to increase federal fiscal transfers to Quebec. The first step was this week with Harper and Charest doing a photo op to announce, again, that Ottawa was providing money for a green fund that will benefit Quebec.

But Harper also has a second runner in the Quebec election race, Mario Dumont and the Action Démocratique (ADQ) which worked hard for Harper in the last election, and helped deliver him his ten Quebec seats. The ADQ holds five seats in the National Assembly and its territory was fertile ground for the Harper Conservatives.

Dumont looks better as a potential Prime Minister than either Charest or Boisclair, according to Quebec pollster Leger Marketing. Their latest poll had the ADQ at 21 per cent, ten points behind the PQ.

Under the rules of the Quebec National Assembly, a party cannot claim party status unless it has at least 12 seats. This is the same number of seats required in Ottawa which has 308 members, compared to 125 in Quebec.

At any one time, there have never been more than two official parties in the Quebec legislature. This may well change if support for Dumont holds. Quebec could be headed for a minority government, with Dumont holding the balance of power.

In the 1995 referendum, the ADQ lined up with the PQ on the “yes” side. Dumont has since refused to support another vote on sovereignty.

Since it was originally a breakaway group from the Bourassa-era Liberal party, forging an alliance with the ADQ would have been the obvious way for Charest to rebuild federalist fortunes in Quebec. But, Charest did not have the political foresight or ability to bring Dumont on board, though he had what he needed to reach an agreement. For instance, Charest could have made Dumont deputy leader, with a clear shot at being premier eventually.

Harper is the one building a coalition of provincial supporters for his Conservatives among Quebec Liberals and the ADQ. If Charest falls short election night, it will be because he allowed Mario Dumont to play the spoiler, instead of bringing him back into the Quebec Liberal fold. Imitating Harper's Quebec coalition would have served him well in any event.

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