The worst-kept secret in Quebec City is now official: Quebecers will be going to the polls on March 26. And as we say in the Maritimes, hold on to your hats.
At a superficial glance, you might conclude that the winner of this election is anyone's guess. But you'd be wrong. While it may look as if Premier Jean Charest is taking a huge political risk, he has a host of electoral conditions working in his favour.
Granted, Mr. Charest has struggled with his poll numbers over the last three years or so, but rookie Parti Quebecois Leader Andre Boisclair has seen his party's standing decline by almost 20 per cent since he took over the leadership in November 2005.
Two recent opinion polls have put Mr. Charest slightly ahead of Mr. Boisclair, while still trailing the PQ in predominantly francophone ridings. However, internal Liberal party polls put the party some 10 points ahead of the PQ.
Significantly, the PQ has tended to falter whenever it has made Quebec sovereignty or the independence project a key campaign issue, which Mr. Boisclair most assuredly promises to do. Rene Levesque even moved away from the sovereignty question precisely because he believed it to be an electoral liability.
More to the point, polls are clearly showing that Quebecers would prefer not to return at this time to the divisive days of the 1995 referendum. This all spells bad news for Mr. Boisclair and the Pequistes.
During the campaign, then, Premier Charest may wish to highlight Mr. Boisclair's promise to hold a referendum in Quebec "as soon as possible." Indeed, it could prove to be an extremely effective wedge issue for him.
Let's remember that the success of the PQ largely depends on its ability to mobilize its supporters and core sovereigntist-minded base. But Mr. Boisclair's serial missteps -- including his lame appearance in a TV parody of Brokeback Mountain involving Stephen Harper and George W. Bush lookalikes, his musings about not needing to be too chummy with public-sector unions (traditional backers), and his call to have the crucifix withdrawn from Quebec's National Assembly -- have given party faithful reason to pause.
There is even the very real possibility that many of the 45 per cent of Quebecers who comprise the sovereigntist voting block may park their votes with the Action democratique du Quebec (ADQ), Quebec solidaire or the Green party (or stay home on election day).
Prime Minister Harper has sought to help out his federalist friend in Quebec City, not unlike when Brian Mulroney assisted Liberal premier Robert Bourassa in the late 1980s with the (failed) Meech Lake Accord.
Mr. Harper has rewarded Mr. Charest with expected federal money for fixing the so-called "fiscal imbalance," fresh cash for sundry climate-change projects, and a controversial resolution identifying the Quebecois as a "nation."
Moreover, Mr. Charest is known as a strong and effective election campaigner (and is buttressed by an $8-million war chest), and no one is quite sure that Mr. Boisclair can measure up. And it remains to be seen whether he can keep his cool in the cut and trust of a gruelling five-week campaign.
Finally, every Quebec government since Liberal Jean Lesage was elected in 1960 (with the one exception of the Union Nationale's election victory in 1966) has served two consecutive terms. This obviously bodes well for Mr. Charest.
Disastrous things can and do happen over the course of a provincial election campaign. But if Mr. Charest runs a mostly gaffe-free campaign, the rest of us in English Canada should be able to exhale a collective sigh of relief -- at least temporarily.
Peter McKenna is an associate professor in the department of political studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, where he teaches Quebec politics.