Has Jean Charest lost the Mandate of Heaven?
A traditional belief in China, which persists to this day, considers a ruler legitimate as long as he is seen to be strong, wise and successful. When he loses his leadership touch, often in tandem with disasters such as famine or flood, he is believed to have lost heaven's sanction and to be ripe for overthrow.
Thus do emperors fall and dynasties change - the Qing replacing the Ming in 1644, for example, with the last Ming emperor hanging himself from a tree just north of the Forbidden City in Beijing.
The question for the day, then, is: Is the end near for the current ruler in Quebec? Is Jean Charest giving long looks at stout trees while out walking in the Eastern Townships? Has our premier truly lost the Mandate of Heaven?
Certainly, he looks a mite battered. He lost his majority in the general election in March, and support has further eroded since them, especially among francophones. The Liberals are dangerously close to becoming the party of the anglos and allos -- which, lovable though so many of us are, just won't do.
Quebecers seem to blame Charest for everything. As Andre Pratte, chief editorialist for La Presse, noted recently:
"When he stands firm, he is called arrogant; when he compromises, he is accused of retreating. If he does not condemn an action by the federal government, we say his real allegiance is to Ottawa; if he comes on as a nationalist, we doubt his sincerity. When he keeps his promises, he is said to be obstinate; when he breaks them, he gets nailed to the wall."
You know you're on a losing wicket when the fans boo you for cutting their taxes. Then there was that jolting poll in La Presse this week. Charest ran a poor third among the party leaders in almost every question to voters, including whom they'd most like to have as a friend. (The old pros had it right: Want a friend in politics? Get a dog.)
In Britain, people having a lean time joke that things are desperate but not serious. For Charest, one suspects, things are starting to look serious.
Not encouraging was the recent statement of support for Charest by the man most likely to replace him as Liberal leader, Health Minister Philippe Couillard. It means Couillard wants the job.
But will he get it? Almost the only welcome note for Charest in the La Presse poll was the discovery that his replacement by Couillard would add but a single point to the Liberals' tally. Would the party really dump him for that?
And how easy would it be to dump him in any case? Charest, remember, is still emperor on the scene, in control of political timing. He is likely to remain so for at least another nine months, until budget time in spring 2008. Quebecers have made it plain they are in no mood for an election this fall, and the politicians have effectively agreed not to bring the Liberals down before then.
This gives Charest time to show that minority government can work, which Quebecers say they want to happen. Come election time, it could make the Liberals a more enticing package to voters fed up with the new quarrels over sovereignty that are inevitable within Pauline Marois's PQ, not to mention the annoying infantilism of Mario Dumont and the ADQ. Bernard Descoteaux, director of Le Devoir, wrote an acid editorial last week giving thanks that Quebecers had not put the shallow and inexperienced ADQ in power.
Moral: It ain't over till it's over- and nothing is inevitable in democratic politics. The history books are littered with stupendous pratfalls and even more amazing recoveries.
Charles de Gaulle and Richard Nixon both returned from political exile to lead their countries. Robert Bourassa, "the most hated man in Quebec," actually left the country for a period before returning to a further term as premier.
Daniel Johnson Sr. won an improbable victory over the strutting Jean Lesage. Pierre Trudeau had resigned and grown a beard before shaving and taking back 24 Sussex in 1980. Australian Prime Minister John Howard returned, Lazarus-like, from defeat and party rejection to become perhaps the most successful politician in the Western world.
And on and on. Dumont's ADQ has been on top, on the bottom and on top again in the polls in recent years. The PQ, which rejected Pauline Marois in 2005, sending her into retirement, welcomed her back as leader this week. Nothing is impossible - and don't get me started on Deng Xiaoping, who played in the roughest league of all, Chinese Communist politics, and gave survivor lessons to everyone.
So, how is it with our man and the Mandate of Heaven? As Chou En-lai famously said, when asked about the impact of the French Revolution, "Too soon to tell."
Norman Webster is a former editor of The Gazette.
Has Jean Charest lost heaven's mandate to govern?
The premier can't seem to get a break - voters even boo him for cutting taxes