Now anything can happen: Quebec could have a minority government for the first time in more than a hundred years. Or the Parti Québécois could end up with third-party status, which would spell the end of the sovereigntist dream for at least a generation.
This election, set for March 26, was supposed to be a perfunctory round between the two usual players. The Charest Liberals would trudge back to power despite a mediocre first mandate. Or the PQ would regain power by a razor-thin victory, despite the disappointing performance of its leader. But, suddenly, all hell has broken loose.
The spoiler is the Action Démocratique du Québec, a small party practically devoid of money and professional organizers but with an attractive leader who has a knack for unleashing the passions (and the prejudices) of what he calls "the ordinary people."
Mario Dumont has been shamelessly exploiting the fears of those people, particularly in small towns such as Hérouxville, who believe that Quebec's values are threatened by Muslim immigrants. He's also running on a conservative platform that features direct payments to parents of preschool children who don't use public daycare centres. Such promises are a big hit with stay-at-home mothers, and play very well in the rural areas and the suburbs.
According to a CROP poll covering a dozen ridings in and around Quebec City last week, the ADQ, which collected only 18 per cent of the vote and four seats in the 2003 election, is neck and neck with the Liberal Party. A Quebec-wide survey by Léger Marketing shows that, for the first time in 30 years, the PQ has slipped below the 30-per-cent threshold of voter support.
In both surveys, Mr. Dumont gets almost as much support as Jean Charest when people are asked who would make the best premier, with André Boisclair lagging far behind.
Mr. Charest is now focusing his attacks on Mr. Dumont.
Uncharacteristically for a man with strong liberal instincts, he has started playing on Mr. Dumont's demagogic turf. Quickly following Mr. Dumont's lead, he approved the decision of a soccer referee who had barred an 11-year-old girl from a tournament because she was wearing a hijab.
The PQ is even in danger of losing the three ridings it still holds in its historical stronghold of Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean. There, according to recent polls, the Liberals and the ADQ are gaining ground, while many Péquistes have decided to stay home. Several PQ activists bluntly told reporters they want the PQ to lose, so the party can get rid of Mr. Boisclair.
Thanks to Mr. Dumont, the campaign had taken a vicious turn against multiculturalism. But then it got worse.
After the PQ candidate in Jonquière declared that he was gay, a popular radio host, Louis Champagne, exclaimed on air that the PQ had become "a club of fags" ("un club de tapettes") and that "factory workers will never vote for a fag."
It was to be expected that Mr. Boisclair's previous lifestyle (he confessed that he had sniffed coke when he was a junior cabinet minister in Lucien Bouchard's government) would come back to haunt the PQ at election time. It was also expected that his homosexuality would be a political handicap in many quarters. But nobody expected such open diatribes against gays.
In a context where being too much of a Montrealer is a liability in outlying regions, Mr. Boisclair is also "guilty" of being a quintessentially urban man who, one suspects, would be much more at ease in downtown Toronto or Vancouver's Yaletown than in Baie-Comeau or Hérouxville.
On the other hand, the vicious attacks against Mr. Boisclair's sexual orientation - as well as his dignified reaction (he calmly appealed to the "millions of Quebeckers who believe in equality") - might raise a current of sympathy in his favour.
In any case, the game is far from finished. Almost half the voters tell pollsters they could change their minds. So stay tuned for the leaders' televised debate next Tuesday.