One thing people should keep in mind when they're trying to guess whether Premier Jean Charest will call an election this fall is that Charest is a gambler. And he isn't afraid to play for high stakes with a hand that's less than a sure thing.
In the televised leaders' debate in the 2003 provincial campaign, Charest decided to raise his controversial municipal demerger promise, which both his adversaries opposed, in his opening statement. This could have put him on the defensive from the start of the debate.
But Bernard Landry and Mario Dumont were so unnerved by Charest's unexpected audacity that neither even mentioned the issue again.
Later in the same debate, Charest took another risk by bringing up an unverified fragment of a news story given to him by his research staff less than an hour before the debate.
The story was about Jacques Parizeau's elaborating earlier in the day, while campaigning for the Parti Québécois, about his "money and ethnic votes" remark on the night of the 1995 referendum.
The PQ leader, Landry, was unaware of the story. But it sounded plausible, and so he was forced to try to distance himself from Parizeau without alienating the latter's hardline sovereignist followers. It took Landry a few days after the debate to recover his balance, and in the meantime the momentum of the campaign shifted in Charest's favour.
As lucky as Charest has been throughout his political career, however, not even he wins all the time.
In 2007, with Mario Dumont's Action démocratique du Québec gaining in popularity, Charest launched the earliest winter election campaign in more than 80 years, before the ADQ could get organized. But Charest lost his parliamentary majority, and came within a few thousand well-placed votes of becoming the first Quebec premier since 1970 to be denied a second term in office altogether.
That hasn't cured Charest of gambling, however. In the current federal election campaign, he has risked not only his own prestige but also the balance of power in Quebec's relations with the next federal government by appearing to take sides against the Conservatives by criticizing policies of their outgoing government.
Actually, the provincial Liberals' attitude toward the Conservatives in this election has been somewhat schizophrenic, in the popular sense of the word.
In many ridings outside Montreal, Liberals are working for the federalist Conservatives against the former's traditional sovereignist enemy, represented by the Bloc Québécois. And provincial Liberals have been given to understand that some Conservative candidates, such as André Bachand and cabinet ministers Michael Fortier and Lawrence Cannon, have Charest's personal blessing.
But it's Charest's public criticism of the Conservatives that has received the most attention. And when it began in mid-September, the Conservatives were still expected to make significant gains in Quebec, which would have been interpreted as a slap in the face to Charest and a rejection of the positions he had taken.
Since then, however, Conservative support in this province has declined, which has been attributed to the criticism by Charest and others. So it now looks as though Charest will win his bet.
He has even been criticized by Dumont, who is openly supporting the Conservatives, for weakening Quebec by depriving it of representatives in the next Conservative cabinet, although other Quebecers might not consider the likes of Josée Verner to be a great loss.
True, the Bloc members of Parliament elected with Charest's help will work against him in the next provincial election in support of the PQ. But then, the ADQ hopes that Conservative MPs will work for them.
If the Conservatives are held to a minority, Charest will be deprived of a pretext for calling a fall election to obtain a mandate to defend Quebec's interests against Ottawa.
Still, he can argue that in a time of economic turmoil, Quebec needs political stability in the form of a majority Liberal government - if the Gambler is feeling lucky again.
Charest rolled the dice by criticizing federal Conservatives, but the gamble appears to have paid off