There's a gambler in every political leader, and Quebec Premier Jean Charest is about to roll the dice by calling an early spring election that likely will be set for March 26.
The wager is somewhat risky, but Mr. Charest doesn't have much room to manoeuvre. Having been plagued by high rates of voter dissatisfaction for most of his mandate, he's now taking advantage of the relatively tiny window of opportunity that opened recently when, for the first time in almost four years, polls showed the opposition Parti Québécois has slipped behind the governing Liberals.
The Liberal lead is very small: According to the latest poll, the PQ is only three points behind (which is within the margin of error) and, in the mostly francophone areas outside Montreal, the PQ is 12 points ahead of the Liberal Party. In any case, the Liberals need at least a six-point overall lead to win an election because too much of their traditional support is concentrated in a few Montreal ridings. But Liberal strategists are confident Mr. Charest could close the gap during the election campaign.
Although he's a rather hesitant manager of public policies, often unable to reach a decision on controversial matters, Mr. Charest becomes another man during elections. He is a superb campaigner, well-focused and aggressive, and the odds are he could easily destabilize PQ Leader André Boisclair, a former junior minister who might be unable to withstand the pressures of an election campaign.
Mr. Boisclair is thin-skinned, emotional and defensive when he's confronted with criticism and, last year, he made several errors of judgment that eroded his credibility. In fact, since he was elected leader of the party in December 2005, the PQ lost 16 percentage points in the polls. Furthermore, while the Liberal activists - a disciplined gang whose major aim is to keep or win power - stand squarely behind their leader, Mr. Boisclair is at the head of a strongly ideological and notoriously fractious party. He is caught between his hard-line militants and the need to cater to middle-class voters.
Still, Premier Charest has a steep hill to climb. A March 26 election will deprive the Liberals of the precious votes of the "snowbirds" - the thousands of retirees who spend the winter in Florida. These traditional Liberal voters typically don't come back before mid-April. And the Liberals are now toying with the idea of putting an end to the freeze on university tuition fees, which are about four times lower in Quebec than in the rest of Canada. This is a sensible policy, indeed, but one that might send thousands of students to the polls. (Students generally favour the PQ, but many don't bother to vote.)
An election in late March certainly makes sense - the Charest government was elected four years ago, in April 2003 - but the Liberals could have waited until the fall to let their slight lead consolidate. The problem is that by then, the Harper government might have fallen, and the prospect of having two election campaigns overlapping is a non-starter. It would provoke too much confusion. So, Mr. Charest appears resigned to seeing the federal budget - which is supposed to "solve" the fiscal imbalance between the central government and the provinces - land at the end of his own election campaign, even though this represents the kind of unpredictable factor politicians hate. (There have been reports the Harper budget is scheduled for March 20.)
For now, Mr. Charest is busy courting the electorate. Last week, he set up a commission of inquiry headed by two prestigious academics (sociologist Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor) to deal with the fuss raised by those who are afraid that the demands of some religious minorities for special treatment are threatening Quebec's identity. Such a commission was absolutely uncalled for, but it's playing well in the province and it is helping raise Mr. Charest's profile as a staunch defender of majority rights. The window of opportunity is slowly getting bigger.