QUEBEC CITY–Whether Jean Charest wins or loses, the March 26 Quebec election will set the stage for a larger national debate.
When they head to the polls next month, Quebecers will not be voting on whether to stay in the federation or set off on their own, but they will be casting judgment on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's approach to federalism.
Their verdict will have a resounding impact on the evolving shape of the Canadian political scene.
With a federal budget set for March 19, just seven days before the vote, the Prime Minister is positioned to have a pivotal influence on the outcome of the Quebec election.
Charest's Liberals stand to live or die by the Conservative budget and its promised solution to the so-called fiscal imbalance.
Harper can ill afford to deliver a budget that does not go down well in Ontario and Western Canada. But he cannot afford to deliver one that does harm to Charest either.
A federalist defeat next month could dramatically reduce the prospects of the Conservative government, not only in Quebec but also elsewhere in Canada.
The Prime Minister's vision of a less centralized federation, his overtures on the front of the recognition of Quebec's national character are controversial in many areas of the country.
If they do not resonate positively for federalism in the coming vote in Quebec, they stand to turn into huge Conservative liabilities in the rest of the country in the next federal campaign.
But in the reverse, a federalist victory in Quebec next month could mean that the question that has dominated the province's politics for so many decades is relegated to the back burner until the sovereignty movement sorts itself out. And that could take a very long time.
In the ensuing vacuum, there would be an opportunity for Harper to consolidate his Quebec base and for the federal Liberals to resuscitate in the francophone areas of the province, all at the expense of the Bloc Québécois.
Until they make more headway in Quebec, the Liberals and the Conservatives will continue to find it equally difficult to secure majority governments on Parliament Hill.
One way or another though, this Quebec vote will almost certainly set in motion a heated national discussion on federalism.
A sovereignist victory would herald a return to referendum politics and the attending tensions of a looming unity crisis.
But a federalist victory will not necessarily put the issue of the Quebec-Canada relationship to rest. On the contrary.
It has never been more obvious that, under a federalist government, Quebec intends to continue participating in the federation on its own distinct terms.
As Charest made clear in a pre-election pep talk to his party last weekend, he plans to give meaning to the recent recognition by Parliament of Quebec's national character, by making the province's voice heard in more international venues for instance.
There is nothing new or particularly revolutionary in Charest's determination to ensure that Quebec has a strong distinctive presence beyond Canadian borders. That has been the policy of every single Quebec government, regardless of its political affiliation, for more than 40 years.
But to this day, that is seen in some Canadian quarters as more threatening than the prospect of separation itself.
Regardless of who is elected premier on March 26, there will also continue to be no mainstream constituency in Quebec for the notion of an activist interventionist federal government, a notion that is close to the heart of many Canadians in other regions of the country.
Two of the three Quebec leaders who set out on the election trail yesterday will not be around for the Canadian sequel to next month's provincial vote or at least not in their current capacities.
For Charest, Mario Dumont and André Boisclair, this is a make-or-break campaign.
Quebecers have almost always granted their governments the gift of a second mandate. If Charest fails where other premiers have usually succeeded, he will quickly be consigned to the dustbins of history.
If Mario Dumont does not manage to turn the Action Démocratique party into a significant presence in the National Assembly, he will be headed for the exit, either to pursue a federal career or else to the relative obscurity of a private-sector job.
Finally, if the PQ is defeated, André Boisclair will shoulder the full brunt of the sovereignist failure to recoup power.
His party will not give him a second chance.
If he fails his audition for the job of premier, he will become the latest in a string of scapegoats for the sovereignty movement's enduring incapacity to advance its cause.