Charest can't count on the left to bail out his Liberals

Quebec Solidaire skimmed off PQ votes but not enough to make a difference

2006 textes seuls



The Charest government is even out of sync with the seasons. The calendar and the weather say it's spring. But the last faint hopes of the Liberals for re-election are falling one by one, like autumn leaves.
Two weeks ago, poll results showed the bounce in popularity they received from the election of a new, Quebec-friendly government in Ottawa was already gone.
Anyway, it was already too late for the Harper government to give Charest what he needs most, which is enough federal cash in time to make an impression on public opinion before the Quebec general election that is due next year.
Signing ceremonies won't be nearly enough. And other than Charest's minister of Canadian intergovernmental affairs, Benoit Pelletier, how many Quebecers really care about Quebec's place at UNESCO?
On Monday evening, the results of the Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques by-election confirmed left-wing third parties aren't going to do Charest's work for him by defeating the Parti Quebecois.
Charest is not a good enough actor to hide his feelings, so the apparent relief he showed Monday night in rushing back from Chicago to congratulate Liberal candidate Nathalie Malepart for finishing as the runner-up was probably genuine.
Malepart finished fewer than 800 votes ahead of the candidate for the fledgling left-wing party, Quebec Solidaire. But it could have been worse for Charest's leadership if the Liberals dropped to third place.
While voter turnout plummeted by almost half from the 2003 general election, to only 32 per cent, the Liberals at least managed to hold onto almost all their vote share in the riding. In terms of vote share, it was the PQ that was the big loser, dropping eight percentage points, while the QS gained 16 points over its forerunner, jumping to 22 per cent.
The environmentalist Green Party gained four points to finish ahead of Mario Dumont's Action Democratique, which has all but disappeared as a factor on the island of Montreal.
Still, the PQ held the seat by a reduced but still relatively comfortable plurality of 13 points. So the PQ appears to have little to fear from the left and the environmentalists, if Monday's showing represents the best those parties can do.
And it probably does. Conditions on Monday for the Solidaires and the Greens were much better than they will be in the next general election. In fact, they were close to ideal.
In a by-election, these small parties could concentrate all their limited resources on a single riding. Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques, in southeastern Montreal, is one of the most receptive ridings in Quebec for left-wing parties.
And in a by-election, voters were free to send a message by casting votes for third parties or simply abstaining, without having to worry about which party will form the government for the next four years.
Obviously, voters in Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques weren't swept away by enthusiasm for PQ leader Andre Boisclair. The PQ lost nearly 8,000 votes from the general election, and this will reinforce doubts that emerged during last year's PQ leadership campaign about Boisclair's appeal to the left.
But remember, this was a by-election to elect a single member of the National Assembly, who will sit for only about a year. And PQ voters are notorious for not showing up at the polls if they don't think it's worth the bother.
It will be different in the general election. Then, the choice for left-wing and environmentalist voters will not be between Boisclair and some abstract ideal. Rather, it will be between Boisclair and four more years of the very real, very flawed Jean Charest, assuming the Liberal backroom boys stick with Quebec's most despised politician in the next election. And a general election is usually a plebiscite on the incumbent.
The Liberals will be sure to play the referendum card again in the next election, as they do in every election. But that didn't save unpopular Liberal governments in 1976 and 1994.
And now that they can no longer rely on the kindness of others to save them, it might be that their very last, slim hope lies in a change of leadership.
dmacpher@thegazette.canwest.com


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