Could this man defeat Québec premier Jean Charest in his own district?

Serge Cardin (pictured above) leads the premier of Québec in his own election district by 12 points in the latest Segma poll — by a daunting margin of 45% to 33%. 

It’s not a fluke — Jean Charest’s seat is one of the most vital election districts to watch among the 125 seats up for grabs in next Tuesday’s election for control of Québec’s Assemblée nationale, and it’s far from certain that Charest himself will even be reelected.  Cardin’s 12-point lead is actually narrower than a poll earlier in the month that showed him with a 15-point lead.

Just yesterday, protesters in Sherbrooke proved so disruptive that Charest cancelled a campaign appearance in his own district.  Moreover, Charest has spent a significant amount of time in Sherbrooke since announcing snap elections in early August, indicating that the premier is increasingly worried about his own constituency.

Although Charest has been the premier of Québec for nearly a decade, and he’s won elections in eight federal and provincial elections since 1984 in Sherbrooke, he faces an increasingly tough fight — the latest province-wide CROP poll shows his party, the Parti libéral du Québec (Liberal Party, or PLQ) in third place with just 26% to 33% for Pauline Marois’s sovereigntist Parti québécois (PQ) and 28% for François Legault’s newly-formed Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ).

Charest, who is seeking a fourth consecutive mandate from Québec voters, finds his government under attack from both the PQ and the CAQ on the economy, on his response to student protesters over the tuition increase and, above all, charges of corruption, including a high-profile commission investigating whether his government traded construction contracts in exchange for political financing.

It’s not the first time that Charest has had a fight on his hands, though, and Sherbrooke has never been a cakewalk for Charest and the Liberals.  In the last provincial elections, Charest defeated the PQ’s candidate in 2008, Laurent-Paul Maheux, by only a 45% to 38% margin.  In 2007, Charest defeated the PQ’s candidate, Claude Forgues, by just 36.5% to 33%.  Even before, Charest defeated the PQ’s Marie Malavoy by just 47% to 39.5% in 2003 and just 47.5% to 44.5% in 1998.

In addition to the potential headwinds against Charest’s Liberals, Cardin is a particularly effective opponent.  A native of Sherbrooke, he’s been no stranger to the region — he served as a city councillor in Sherbrooke from 1986 to 1998, and he replaced Charest as Sherbrooke’s federal MP in the House of Commons in 1998 and held the seat for the Bloc québécois until 2011.  Now, as a candidate for the PQ in 2012, he is proving a formidable challenger to Charest.

In addition, earlier this month, Charest’s former justice minister from 2003 to 2004, Marc Bellemare, had threatened a potential run in Sherbrooke against Charest.  Bellemere turned viciously against Charest, attacking his government on ethics and corruption.  Although Bellemere opted against a run, he endorsed Cardin, declaring his slogan as “Anybody but Charest.”

A defeat for Charest would almost certainly end a three-decade political career for a man who’s been at both the center of provincial politics and federal politics — from 1993 to 1998, Charest was the leader of the federal Progressive Conservative Party after its ranks were decimated following Brian Mulroney’s so dominant Tory government in the 1980s.

Although it is unlikely that the PLQ would win any province-wide election

Cardin’s taking no chances — and Charest still has many admirers in Sherbrooke:

“Evidently, I am pro-Charest, but this doesn’t mean that the government is perfect — perfect governments don’t exist,” said Bernard Bonneau, a mentor to the wild-haired, teenage Charest….

Bonneau’s faith in Charest goes back a long way.  He remembers watching him overcome big political obstacles in his hometown — starting with his first-ever campaign speech at the age of 16.  The priest recalls that the feisty Charest wasn’t a model student and didn’t have particularly good grades at what he described as a “tough” public school.  He sensed, however, a strong personality within the 11th grader. He urged him to run for student-body president at Ecole Montcalm. Bonneau even helped him pen his campaign speech.

But moments before Charest was to deliver the address, to around 1,000 students in the school’s packed auditorium, the teenager began to panic.  Charest stood nervously backstage and said he wanted to back out.  Bonneau said he pushed the young man through the curtains toward the podium.  Charest wound up giving a passionate speech off the top of his head — without once pulling a copy of the address out of his pocket.  There was wild applause from Charest’s peers. He won the election later that day.

Sherbrooke, Québec’s sixth-largest city, lies in the south of the province near the U.S. border, with an economy focused on higher education and health care.

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