Quebec Premier Jean Charest looked devastated on election night, as he should have been. Even though the Liberals were re-elected, albeit with a minority government, Mr. Charest led his party to one of its worst electoral results. Its francophone base crumbled under the assault of the Action Démocratique du Québec and, without its rock-solid anglophone base in Montreal, the once mighty Liberals of Jean Lesage and Robert Bourassa would have been reduced to third-party status.
This is somewhat puzzling, since the Quebec Liberal Party had by far the deepest coffers and the best organization. But money can't buy you love. It can't even guarantee a good election campaign. The Liberals didn't realize that their real adversary was the ADQ, rather than the Parti Québécois. Mr. Charest spent half the campaign attacking the sovereigntists, while the ADQ was quietly winning over large parts of the province. When he turned against Mario Dumont, it was too late.
Mr. Charest's handlers convinced him that he should look like a premier who was above the fray in the leaders' televised debate; the result was that Mr. Charest was dull and aloof and didn't display his formidable abilities as a vigorous debater. His handlers brought him to a factory in, of all places, the heart of a PQ stronghold, with the result that TV news bulletins opened with the Premier's being heckled by workers who were supposed to have been part of the photo op.
Mr. Charest's first mandate had been terribly disappointing: He didn't fulfill his promises for substantial tax reductions, a leaner bureaucracy and better health-care services, and he squandered his precious time in office with a string of half-baked minor decisions that developed into full-fledged crises. One example: the project of selling part of Mount Orford, in the Eastern Townships, to condo builders. The file was so badly managed that the opposition had a field day and the affair lasted for nearly a year.
Mr. Charest also seemed indecisive every time he faced a controversial decision. When the choice of a location for Montreal's future francophone teaching hospital pitted two camps against each other, for example, Mr. Charest abstained. The result was that the better choice (the one pushed by the Université de Montréal) was abandoned in favour of the one backed by the labour movement, leftist lobbies and the PQ.
Mr. Charest has been quite productive on the larger Canadian scene - the Council of the Federation, for instance, was one of his initiatives - but such policies of quiet diplomacy don't resonate much with the voters at large. Since Mr. Charest's first mandate was devoid of any spectacular achievement, he was reduced to taking credit for decisions that were actually "gifts" from the Harper government: a seat at UNESCO, the recognition of the Québécois as a "nation," and Jim Flaherty's Quebec-friendly budget.
Ironically, Mr. Charest's job at the helm of a minority government might prove easier than if he were yet again facing a strong PQ opposition with close links to the labour movement and the ability to stage large street demonstrations. Ideologically, the ADQ is relatively close to the Liberals.
Both parties, for example, have a pro-business agenda, and both favour streamlining the civil service and lightening the fiscal burden of the middle class. (Gilles Taillon, Mr. Dumont's right-hand man and the only ADQ candidate with a public profile, is the former head of the Conseil du patronat du Québec, the province's main business lobby.) So maybe the presence of the ADQ as the Official Opposition will strengthen the position of the Charest government and have a stimulating effect on Mr. Charest himself.
None of the opposition parties want another election soon. The PQ will be going through a bitter leadership race and an agonizing identity crisis that is likely to last for more than a year. And the ADQ must build itself into a serious party almost from scratch, since it went into this election on a shoestring with "instant candidates" almost picked at random.
This minority government might have a long life.