MONTREAL - Last spring, academics gathered at McGill University to debate whether Jean Charest's Liberal government was the worst in Quebec history. A poll published a week earlier had found that two-thirds of Quebecers wished the Premier would quit. "Charest must leave," was how the front-page headline in Le Devoir interpreted the results.
Mr. Charest ignored the advice, and on Wednesday he will launch an election campaign that, to the amazement of his critics, he stands a good chance of winning.
Speaking on Saturday to a gathering of 2,500 Liberals in Quebec City, Mr. Charest was downright cocky as he looked ahead to the election, expected for March 26. "Quebecers will never go back to the days of a Pequiste government, of wasted public funds," he predicted.
His Liberals have pulled ahead of the separatist Parti Quebecois in recent polls despite lingering unhappiness with the government's performance -- 57% of respondents to a Leger Marketing poll published last week said they were dissatisfied with the Charest government.
For the 48-year-old former federal Tory Cabinet minister and leader, who has been a politician since he was 26, the first crack at leading a government has been far from smooth. Elected in April, 2003, on a platform promising a dramatic overhaul of Quebec's government apparatus, the Liberals were forced to back down when confronted with public protests.
Even minor initiatives, such as a plan to publicly fund private Jewish schools and sell off a ski hill inside a provincial park, managed to generate mountains of negative publicity and contribute to a general impression of incompetence. The extent to which Mr. Charest has pulled his party back into contention is remarkable, but no less remarkable is the hole he had dug for them as recently as a year ago.
Francois Petry, professor of political science at Universite Laval, has just published with two colleagues a collection of essays examining the Charest government's record. He said in an interview that many of the failures of the government's first mandate resulted from unrealistic ambitions.
"Jean Charest presented himself to voters in 2003 with big ideas, at times even revolutionary ones," Mr. Petry said.
"They were going to change Quebec. They were going to abandon the Quebec model and create something else, and in the end, four years later, we see they have not really achieved their ambitions. They have left many things aside."
Mr. Charest assumed that a majority government, won with 46% of the popular vote, was all the mandate he needed to proceed with his "re-engineering" of the state. Government's role would be restricted to a few key fields such as health, education and security, while the private sector would play a bigger part in delivering public services. Overtaxed Quebecers would see their provincial income tax drop by 27% by the end of the first mandate. Government handouts to big business would be abandoned in favour of support for research and development.
Four years later, the income tax cuts have not materialized, government ministers regularly offer money to such companies as IBM, Telus and Bombardier, and the 72,000-strong civil service has been trimmed by just 5%.
The "Quebec model," with a large government role in the economy, may be showing its age, but it has strong defenders among the province's trade unions. After the government dared increase daycare rates to $7 a day from $5, the union movement reacted with a "national day of disturbance" in December, 2003, inconveniencing commuters and truckers with their protests.
"The paradox is that if Charest had really kept his promises to transform the Quebec state and move away from the Quebec model -- to cut taxes, etc. --he would probably be even less popular," Mr. Petry said. "He must have said at a certain point, 'I'm just going to try to govern, without revolutionizing ?' We cannot completely criticize the Charest government for not keeping its major promises, because I think they were too ambitious."
That doesn't mean the Liberals have no record to stand on. A quantitative analysis of the party's 2003 election promises by Mr. Petry and his colleagues, Eric Belanger and Louis Imbeau, found that 60% had been kept as of last June. "Overall, it appears that the Charest government has not been as bad as people s ay," the three political scientists concluded.
Monique Jerome-Forget, Treasury Board president, said her government has paid the price for ruffling feathers. "We brought with this mandate a number of changes -- changes that were fundamental. When you bring change, you have a number of people who are not very happy because they want to stick to what they have been doing," she said in an interview.
It was never the government's intention to revolutionize Quebec, she insisted, but there has been progress toward reducing the size of government. Her target is to trim the civil service through attrition, filling one out of every two jobs that comes open. That will reduce the size of the workforce by 20% by 2014. She also pointed to public-private partnerships that will give the private sector a major role in the planned construction of two Montreal teaching hospitals, two highway extensions and a Montreal concert hall.
"We never planned a revolution," she said. "You can bring in a revolution, you're fired, and somebody goes back to zero and undoes what you've done. You have to bring the people with you. Politics is not about dictatorship. It's about persuading, getting the people with you and changing a culture."
Politics is also about timing and a bit of luck, and those factors more than anything else explain Mr. Charest's current confidence. Andre Boisclair, the PQ leader who replaced Bernard Landry in 2005, has so far proven a lightweight and an irresistible target for Mr. Charest's sharp political tongue. When Mr. Boisclair bragged last week that the PQ were ready to fight the election "with the knife between our teeth," Mr. Charest remarked dryly, "Let's hope he doesn't hurt himself."
And the election last year of a federal Conservative government committed to resolving the fiscal imbalance has given Mr. Charest a huge boost. Last week, Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister, announced $350-million in funding for Quebec's climate-change plan, and the federal budget expected next month should contain more money, just as the Quebec election campaign hits the home stretch.
Mr. Harper can get away with what some might take as meddling in a provincial election because of the national interest in seeing the defeat of the PQ, which is promising another referendum if elected. Ms. Jerome- Forget suggested a decisive Liberal victory could be crippling to the PQ. "That's why we feel very strongly that we have to win this election," she said. "The sovereignty movement won't disappear, but it would certainly be hurt quite a lot if we get re-elected."
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