Premier Jean Charest's news conference yesterday wrapping up the fall sitting of the National Assembly had most of the trappings of an election call.
His ministers were there to provide a supportive audience. To make room for them, the event was held in a meeting room at a hotel across the street from the National Assembly instead of in the news-conference room at the Assembly.
And instead of limiting himself to the usual recital of the government's accomplishments during the sitting that had just ended, Charest also listed its previous achievements since the last election 3 1/2 years ago.
It sounded as though he was building up to announcing the date of the next election. But the announcement never came. That will be for some time in the new year, after a pre-election cabinet shuffle.
Charest is not quite in position to call an election. The polls still show that more voters are dissatisfied with his government's performance than are satisfied, and that the Liberals trail the Parti Quebecois in popularity where it matters most - among francophones and in the rural regions.
But the Liberals' re-election is no longer out of the question, and their situation has improved significantly since a year ago, when it appeared that the premier might be replaced as leader of his party.
In the CROP-La Presse polls, the government's satisfaction rating had improved by 18 points between December 2005 and last month, when 43 per cent of Quebecers said they were satisfied with the government's performance.
Most of the improvement has taken place since June, and coincided with a period in which the government not only made several pre-election announcements but also finally stopped making the political blunders that had characterized its first three years in office.
It couldn't have been by oversight that the one government action of the past year that Charest didn't bring up yesterday was its decision to sell part of the Mont Orford provincial park for a private condo development. After all, thanks to Charest's sacking of Environment Minister Thomas Mulcair for refusing to sign off on it, the proposed sale dominated provincial politics in the first half of the year.
And for the duration of that period, it delayed the start of the political comeback Charest had hoped to launch at the beginning of the year. The proposed sale was so widely unpopular that in a protest against it in Montreal in the spring, English-speaking environmentalists marched behind the leader of the PQ.
Also in the second half of the year, the Liberals all but abandoned their efforts to reduce the size and cost of government, which had pitted them against organized labour and other affected interest groups in almost constant conflict.
After three years of intermittent, tentative efforts to convince the public of the need for austerity, whatever problem the public finances were facing suddenly vanished when the Liberals found the money for new pre-election expenditures.
In fact, they've committed so much money for future uses that they might have trouble presenting a credible, balanced budget in the spring. More than ever, they're counting on the Harper government in Ottawa to bail them out financially in its next budget.
They're also counting on the weakness of their opposition. Andre Boisclair's lacklustre performance against Charest in the Assembly has given the Liberals confidence that they can out-campaign the PQ.
And in the Assembly, Charest and some of his ministers never missed an opportunity to criticize the Boisclair for "lacking maturity" and "lacking judgment," areas where they sense the public has doubts about the PQ leader. It's also an indirect way of bringing up Boisclair's "youthful error" of cocaine use while he was a cabinet minister.
Charest's entourage has been talking up the possibility of an early election since the summer. Sometimes one suspects that the leaks were merely intended to make the PQ believe that it had no time to change leaders again before the election actually is called.
Charest celebrates a good year - the last half, at least
The Liberals are still behind in the polls but they now think they have a chance