Liberal support for Charest rings hollow

Polls suggest the premier is toast, putting pressure on him to make an early exit

Charest en fin de régime - L'art de ne rien faire

"Poser la question, c'est y repondre," they say in French - to ask the question is to answer it.
In reply to questions about ever louder rumblings out of the Liberal caucus about his leadership, Premier Jean Charest said this week he'll lead the Liberals into the next election. And even though it appears that where he'll lead them is straight over a cliff, his ministers and members of the National Assembly say - in public, at least - that they're happy as lemmings to follow him.
Of course. That's what they're supposed to say - right up until the day when Charest announces he's stepping down - which might be sooner than some people expect.
Three species of vulture are found in Quebec: the black vulture, the turkey vulture and the journalist.
Reporters' questions about the future of a leader don't come out of the blue. There are good reasons why they're being asked these days about Jean Charest or Stephane Dion, but not about Mario Dumont or Stephen Harper.
Often, when it reaches the point that questions are being asked about the future of a leader, it's the beginning of the end for him. The questions themselves become self-fulfilling prophecies, for they undermine the leader's authority. And his vows to stay, and his followers' professions of loyalty, carry as much weight as the votes of confidence hockey coaches receive from their bosses shortly before they're fired.
The Liberals were at a similar stage in January 1998. With the party facing defeat in the election to be held later that year, some of its MNAs were reported to have been complaining about the leadership of the unpopular Daniel Johnson. In response, Johnson defiantly told his caucus whether they liked it or not, he'd still be their leader in the election.
And a month later, Johnson was gone.
He was pushed out by the party establishment of influential organizers, fundraisers and contributors, people who don't like to lose elections. No doubt they like even less the imminent prospect of the Liberals' being dropped to third-party status, on the way to political oblivion.
In popularity among French-speaking voters, the Liberals trail well behind the official opposition Action democratique du Quebec and the Parti Quebecois. They received the votes of only an estimated one-quarter of francophones in the March 26 election. And since then, their support has slipped even farther, to around 20 per cent. Pollster Claude Gauthier of the CROP firm says Liberal support "seems to have fallen to the floor, and it's hard to see how it can go any lower." And Charest is dragging down the party, since he's even less popular.
In La Presse, considered the newspaper of the French-speaking Liberal establishment, chief editorialist Andre Pratte made a convincing case why Charest isn't likely to turn the situation around. But he then backed off and gave Charest until the end of the summer to show he could.
Whether the Liberal Party gives Charest even that long might depend upon how it reads the political calendar.
It's generally assumed now that the Liberal minority government won't survive the vote in the Assembly on next year's budget, due to be presented shortly after the session resumes in mid-March. So if the Liberals are to have a new leader in place for the next election, he or she must be chosen by early March at the latest.
But a contested leadership campaign takes at least 31/2 months, counting from the incumbent's resignation. So Charest would have to resign before or during the fall sitting of the Assembly, which begins in late October. That would expose the Liberals to the risk that the opposition parties would force them into an early election behind either a lame-duck Charest or an interim leader.
They could, however, squeeze a leadership campaign into the summer recess, which this year will begin at the latest on June 22. But for that to happen, Charest would have to resign soon after the Assembly adjourns for the summer.
If he doesn't, then the Liberals might be stuck with him in the next election after all.

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