As snap election looms in Québec, what accounts for the charmless success of Jean Charest?

Almost every commentary on Canadian politics seems certain that Québec premier Jean Charest is set to launch a snap election in La belle province in the early autumn — with an announcement as soon as August 1.

Charest, whose Parti libéral du Québec (Liberal Party, or PLQ) has controlled the Québec provincial government since 2003, must call an election before December 2013.  But with Québec’s education minister, Michelle Courchesne and its international relations minister Monique Gagnon-Tremblay both announcing that they will step down at the end of the current term of the Assemblée nationale du Québec, and with a politically-charged Charbonneau Commission set to resume hearings on whether Charest’s government awarded government construction contracts in exchange for political financing, speculation is electric that Charest will call an election for early September.

The predominantly French-speaking Québec is Canada’s second-largest province with almost one-quarter of its population, so an election could well have national consequences.

An autumn election would follow a particularly polarizing spring, when student protesters rocked Montréal over a proposed hike in university tuition fees.  The tumultuous protests, which hit a crescendo back in May, have already resulted in the resignation of a previous education minister, Line Beauchamp.  Although Quebeckers seemed divided fairly equally in sympathy between the government and the student protestors, the battle has essentially cooled off as students depart for the summer.  Nonetheless, the government’s decision to enact Bill 78 — which provides that any gathering of over 50 people is illegal unless reported to police in advance — was less popular, leading many voters (not to mention national and international human rights advocates) to decry Charest.

For all of the stability he may have brought to Canadian federalism in the last decade, on the face of it, it would seem a rather difficult time for Charest to win a fourth consecutive mandate.  Charest’s Parti libéral recently lost a by-election in June in the riding of Argenteuil in southern Québec, a Liberal stronghold since 1966.

And yet — through all of this — Charest and his Parti libéral are, at worst, even odds to win a fourth term, an electoral achievement unprecedented since the era of Maurice Duplessis and his Union Nationale in the 1940s and 1950s.

Say what you will about Duplessis, his presence is unrivaled in 20th century Québec — he is synonymous with the province’s internal development, a staunch anti-Communist, French Catholic conservative whose rule over Québec was nearly unchallenged for two decades.

Which is to say: Jean Charest is no Maurice Duplessis.

Yet the always-impressive ThreeHundredEight blog’s latest forecast shows Charest’s PLQ with 60 seats to just 55 seats for the more leftist and separatist Parti québécois (PQ).  The newly-formed center-right, vaguely sovereigntist Coalition Avenir Québec, meanwhile, would win just 8 seats, and the radical leftist Québec solidaire would win 2 seats.

What can explain Charest’s staying power?

To understand Charest’s career is to understand that his political saga is an “only in Canada” story.

Charest started his career as the hopeless leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives, once the main party of Canada’s center-right — under Brian Mulroney, it held power in Canada for much of the 1980s.  It was reduced to just two seats in the 1993 federal election.  One of those seats belonged to Charest, which somewhat boosted his leadership potential.  He ran a strong enough campaign in the 1997 federal election, increasing the hapless PCs tenfold — to 20 seats. The PCs, at the federal level, ultimately merged with Stephen Harper’s Canadian Alliance and the rest, of course, is history. Harper has been Canada’s prime minister since 2006.

But back in 1998, Charest left the federal scene (to be fair, probably a good career move) to take on Lucien Bouchard, who was then the head of the Parti québécois.  In 1998, Québec was just three years removed from a wrenching referendum on secession from Canada — the “No” vote won with just 50.58% to the “Yes” vote’s 49.42%.

It’s important to remember that in Canadian politics, federal parties have only loose links to provincial parties — and that’s especially true in Québec, where the Conservative Party does not exist (in any form), where the Bloc québécois exists as a party for federal elections separate from (but still closely aligned with) the Parti québécois, and where the social democratic New Democratic Party does not compete at the provincial level — and, until the most recent federal election in 2011, when the NDP upended Québec’s federal politics, it did not have much of a presence in Québec during federal elections either.*

Charest got creamed by Bouchard in Québec’s 1998 provincial elections, as it turns out.

But by 2003, he defeated a weary Parti québécois headed by then-premier Bernard Landry, who lacked the charisma of Bouchard and his predecessor, Jacques Parizeau.  Charest won 76 seats in the 2003 election, to this day the high-water mark for the Parti libéral.

By 2007, Charest, never particular popular, managed to win a second term for the Parti libéral with just 48 seats, thanks to two factors: a trainwreck in Parti québécois leader André Boisclair, an openly gay man with a reputation for all manner of trouble**, and a surging third party, the Action démocratique du Québec of Mario Dumont.  Dumont’s center-right ADQ benefitted from the soft support of Harper’s federal conservatives, while it played a coy game of being “autonomist” — somehow sovereigntist, without being separatist.  Given the alternatives, Quebeckers rewarded the ADQ with 41 seats to just 36 for the Parti québécois.

Charest called a snap election in 2008, calling for a clear mandate in light of the growing global economic crisis — it turned out to be a wise move.  Charest strengthened his position by winning 66 seats to 51 for the PQ and just 7 for the now considerably less popular ADQ.

Today, the PQ has a more stable leader in Pauline Marois, who has not exactly been banging the drums on secession.  But she represents a center-left alternative nearly as unexciting as Charest.

The newly-formed CAQ, headed by former PQ heavyweight François Legault and based on the remnants of the old ADQ, had hoped to use Mario Dumont’s playbook to challenge both Charest and Marois, but the party has consistently dropped in polls since its formation in January 2012.

In fact, in polls since May, the Parti libéral and the PQ generally win a little above 30% each, all the while trading leads, as the CAQ takes around 20%.  That vote-splitting may be just enough to allow Charest to win.  The Parti libéral has always benefitted from a strong vote among Anglophones in Québec, while Francophones in Québec City and other usual PQ strongholds have voted ADQ in the past and may well lend enough support to the CAQ in the next election to split enough districts in a manner than would favor the Parti libéral.

So despite all signs that Québec are sick of the status quo, Charest seems just as likely as not to win a fourth term.

The next date to watch is August 1.

* In 2011, the NDP scrambled federal politics by becoming the Official Opposition.  It did so largely on the strength of a surprise burst of electoral strength in Québec, where it won 59 seats and 43% of the vote, to just 23% for the Bloc (which had won just four seats after having won a plurality of Québec’s seats in the House of Commons in every federal election since 1993).

** Admitted cocaine use, for starters.

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