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Election call looms in Quebec: Can Charest pull off a fourth term?

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Scuttlebutt amongst the chattering classes here in Quebec is that Premier Jean Charest will call a provincial election for September 4th, the Tuesday following Labour Day. That would see him pulling the plug on his third consecutive mandate on August 1st, and hitting the hustings for a rare summer election.

His window of opportunity is about as narrow as that, since the following Monday would leave advance polls (upon which the Liberals rely) to take place over the Labour Day long weekend, when many are away. The Monday after that is Rosh Hashanah, and any date past there would coincide with the resumption of the Charbonneau Commission, and televised tales of Liberal corruption.

If Charest chooses not to pull the trigger on a September 4th election, it's unlikely we'll be called to the polls until next fall, after the Charbonneau Commission's report is tabled and, Charest can only hope, forgotten.

This week saw the announcement by Education Minister Michelle Courchesne that she would not be seeking re-election. This brings to two the number of Education Ministers driven from politics by the student strike and associated social movement, but she's hardly alone.

The list of cabinet ministers and long time Liberal MNA's who will not be seeking re-election is lengthy and seems to grow by the week. It's hard to avoid conjuring up the image of rats deserting a sinking ship.

While Charest suffers from many afflictions, a lack of confidence is not one of them. Although there are many voices within the Liberal party urging him to wait until the expiry of his mandate next year, he seems confident that he can pull one final rabbit out of his hat, and conjure up at least a minority government this summer.

It seems more likely that this will prove to be his Waterloo, with his fourth and final election dealing him an ignominious defeat.

Polls show a tight race between Charest's Liberals and Pauline Marois' Parti Quebecois, with Francois Legault's Coalition Avenir Quebec and Amir Khadir and Francoise David's Quebec Solidaire bringing up the rear. But that isn't nearly as good news for Charest as it might seem.

Because of the concentration of Liberal votes in anglophone constituencies in the western part of Montreal Island, where they often win with upwards of 60 per cent of the vote, they have historically required a clear separation of at least four or five points province-wide in order to win. That's because all the 'wasted' votes out west don't gain the Liberals any additional seats.

So it would seem that Charest, who has a reputation as a skilled campaigner, is counting on his ability to deliver on the campaign trail. Of course, he may not have as much choice in the matter as it appears. No one knows better than Charest just how damaging the Charbonneau Commission's revelations of political corruption will be, and an election next fall would be going all-in on the extraordinary capacity of voters to forget all about such scandals once they fall off the front page.

For the time being voters can check the rational part of their brain at the door, and convince themselves that the allegations of illegal campaign financing, bid-rigging and generalized corruption are merely that, allegations. They'll be lying to themselves, and they'll know it, but it may be an easier justification than after all of the Liberal's corruption is laid out and proven.

If Charest does pull the plug, he'll be going to the voters with a very simple ballot question. As L. Ian MacDonald put it in today's Montreal Gazette, "Who's in charge, the democratically elected government, or a mob?"

MacDonald goes on to argue that the "mob of students and anarchists" will only make his point if they disrupt his campaign events.

Apart from the laughable assertion that the social movement which has seen half a million people take to the streets of Montreal is a 'mob', or that it is composed of equal parts students and 'anarchists,' MacDonald has a point about Charest's strategy.

As damaging as the student strike has been to Charest's Liberals, thanks to a broad and media-fueled misunderstanding of the basic issues involved, many do support the government's position. Thus it is a far better issue to preoccupy voters than corruption, on which Charest obviously has only defenders, not supporters.

But Charest will be gambling on an effort to further demonize a broad movement with wide and vocal support, not only among social progressives, but Quebec society at large. It's a risky gambit in a province with as cohesive and tribal a culture as Quebec.

If students are able to return hundreds of thousands to the streets on August 22nd, as seems likely, Quebeckers are more likely to take their grievances seriously, particularly with the reviled Bill 78, rather than dismiss them as an unwashed fringe.

While polls show a bare majority support Charest on tuition, they also show around sixty percent oppose Bill 78. With the fledgling CAQ gobbling up anti-student votes on the right, Charest may be hard pressed to convince the generally socially progressive middle class that his assault on civil liberties was justified. Especially if they continue to see large numbers of their fellow citizens take to the streets against it.

But leaving the student strike aside for a moment, I believe it's fair and objective to say that on the basis of corruption alone, Charest richly deserves to be removed from office.

He has presided over the most corrupt government this province has seen since the Dupplessis era. His party has flouted campaign finance laws, many which they themselves enacted, and are demonstrably tied to organized crime. There would be more than enough money for free education, better healthcare and improved social programs, if we stopped paying an estimated thirty percent 'corruption surtax' on public works projects.

But Quebec politics are complicated. And when I say complicated I mean it makes even a casual observer want to bang their head against a wall until the pain stops.

Anglos terrified of another referendum would continue to vote for Charest if it were revealed that he murdered small children to make voodoo potions out of their blood. Many Franco federalists will likewise hold their nose and vote for peace and quiet at the National Assembly.

For her part Marois has been reluctant to promise another referendum on sovereignty, instead offering that a PQ government would hold a series of referendums on specific issues, such as culture. This tepid approach to seperation led PQ MNA Jean-Martin Aussant to break away from the PQ and form his own party, Option Nationale. Although it is by far the smallest of Quebec's five real parties, it does threaten to bleed some hard core sovereigntist votes away from the PQ, which in turn may lead to a beefing up of their sovereignty rhetoric.

However, the reason every PQ leader for a decade has sought to downplay the prospect of a referendum any time in the near future is fairly simple. They can read poll results.

Quebeckers are overwhelmingly against another referendum, with support for sovereignty hovering in the mid to high thirties. Charest will no doubt trade heavily on the sovereigntist bogey man, and seek to scare voters back into his waiting arms, but the truth is there will not be another referendum any time soon. If there is, it will be a resounding defeat for sovereigntist forces, one which would set their cause back a decade or longer. 

It is in fact sovereigntists who should be most afraid of a referendum, but that won't stop freaked out anglos from rushing to the man Laurence Martin recently described as a "giant of national unity".

Martin's column, which drew furious condemnation from those of us who actually live in Quebec, sets up the sub-textual ballot question of this election quite nicely.

"Sure, he leads the most demonstrably corrupt government since Duplessis, and he shovels our money out the door to his buddies in organized crime, but he's the only thing standing between us and the sovereigntist barbarians at the gate. So what's a little corruption between friends?"

Sadly, that asinine argument will resonate with more Quebeckers than it should, especially anglophones, who live in perpetual fear of round three of the national unity debates.

But Charest's best ally in his improbable bid for a fourth term is really Pauline Marois and the listless PQ. Despite a litany of Liberal scandals and missteps, the PQ has failed miserably at converting their opponents' woes into support.

A large part of that is that no one really knows what the PQ stands for. They seem to agree with most of what Charest is doing. They would just do it more gradually. They long since kicked out SPQ-libre, their progressive wing, and they can't seem to make up their mind on whether they support the student cause, initially donning red squares before recently removing them.

Being for or against the students both carry the risk of alienating large sections of the electorate. But being incoherent and wishy-washy about what kind of society you want, while you set policy by focus group, is a recipe for apathy. In fact, a large part of the PQ campaign seems to be based on the idea of change for its own sake. People may vote for that message, but they are far from enthused by it.

In my opinion, the real wildcard in this election is Quebec Solidaire. With four parties above the ten percent mark, we seem destined for a minority government. This scenario plays well for QS, who need to refute the PQ strategic voting argument in order to make real headway.

With an elected MNA (Khadir) and poll numbers consistently above ten percent, QS seems certain to get an invitation to the leadership debate. Khadir, an exceptional speaker, will be armed with more ammunition than a leader can normally hope for.

He will argue, correctly, that the corruption did not start with the Liberals, but that they expanded a system of corruption which dates back to PQ governments. Marois will have a hard time refuting this charge, given that her party's lawyers have been frantically fighting to muzzle Jacques Duscheneau at the Charbonneau commission.

In a province sick to death of dirty politics and leaders as inspiring as a wet noodle, the more exposure the populist firebrand Khadir gets, the better his party will do.

He will lay out a vision of a Quebec in which corruption is rooted out and punished; in which banks, corporations and the wealthy are asked to pay their fair share in taxes, and that money is invested in social programs Quebeckers cherish; in which the environment is not ravaged by Charest's Plan Nord, and people's rights are protected. He will offer up a vision of collaborative government, one which will contrast sharply with Charest's strong-man style.

None of this will be enough to put him in the Premier's chair on September 5th, I think, but it may be enough to give his party the balance of power in a minority government.

It's important to remember Khadir consistently ranks in the top three in an annual poll of Quebeckers favourite politicians. His personal popularity far outstrips that of his party, and if Quebeckers begin to see QS as a serious option, a sudden surge of support is far from impossible.

Many in the media are quick to write off QS, including many who should know better. After all, this is the province that increased our NDP caucus from one to fifty-nine only last May. Over the years the Quebec electorate has demonstrated a clear volatility, and predisposition to sudden, drastic shifts in political allegiance. People here are hungry for change, but confused about who can provide it.

If Khadir and QS take advantage of the increased visibility the campaign provides, and make a compelling case to replace the uninspired PQ, as the NDP did to replace their federal cousin the Bloc Quebecois, they could secure the support of a large chunk of the roughly 40% of Quebeckers who support the students.

I think a more likely scenario is that they push their support to between fifteen and twenty percent, and elect enough members to wield serious influence in a fractured National Assembly. But conventional wisdom has been proven wrong so often in this province, it would be foolish to discount the possibility that QS's integrity, honestly and principle resonate with Quebeckers.

The bottom line? This election is a volatile crap shoot, and anyone who tells you they know how it will turn out is reaching. My advice? Vote your conscience, not the lesser of two evils. Quebec is a province where anything is possible, so buckle your seat belt, because it's going to be a wild ride!


Follow me on twitter for the latest on Quebec politics: @EthanCoxMTL

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