Quebec's Premier Jean Charest speaks at a rally in his riding of Sherbrooke, Quebec, July 31, 2012.
Credits: REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
MONTREAL - Premier Jean Charest put his nine-year-old Liberal government on the line by calling an election Wednesday amid a corruption inquiry, threats of whistle-stop student protests and stiff challenges from the upstart CAQ party and reinvigorated Parti Quebecois separatists.
As soon as he launched his campaign in Quebec City, Charest made it clear that the often-violent student protests led him to trigger the 34-day campaign that will culminate with a vote on Sept. 4.
He lit into student anarchists even before mentioning his political rivals, decrying "violence and intimidation" that included the ransacking of his education minister's office in the spring.
"Behind the tuition question invoked by the protesters is another agenda that challenges the established order and our democratic institutions," he said in front of his campaign bus, flanked by his cabinet members.
"The streets have made a lot of noise. It's now Quebecers' turn to speak."
Charest, 54, is Canada's longest-serving premier, having started out as a young federal cabinet minister under Brian Mulroney.
He later took over Mulroney's decimated Progressive Conservative Party, but by the late 1990s Charest faced intense pressure to jump to Quebec politics and topple his charismatic former Tory colleague-turned-separatist, Lucien Bouchard.
Charest spent five years as Opposition leader in Quebec City and was rewarded with a majority government in 2003, followed by a minority in 2007 and a slim majority in 2008.
He's trying to become the first Quebec premier in 56 years to win a fourth consecutive mandate.
Charest was out of the gates neck and neck with his fiercest rival - a Parti Quebecois that has rebounded from the damaging blow dealt sovereigntists last year when the Bloc Quebecois was virtually swept out of Ottawa.
A new Leger Marketing poll has Pauline Marois' PQ at 33% support, compared with 31% for the Liberals.
The margin of error is 2.4 percentage points, which means Quebec's two main parties could have been tied in popular support just prior to the election call.
Liberals have been weakened by four years of near-continuous corruption allegations that have dogged the party and the rest of Quebec's political class.
But many Quebecers are just as tired of the endless national unity debate and the sovereignty option championed by Marois.
She launched her campaign hours before the official election call and said she will talk about sovereignty "every day" of the campaign.
But the 63-year-old separatist veteran won't commit to holding a third independence vote if elected.
"We're not voting for or against a referendum," she told reporters Wednesday. "We're voting for or against a government."
Disillusionment with traditional parties might open the door for former PQ cabinet minister Francois Legault, who recently founded the Coalition Avenir Quebec (Coalition for the Future of Quebec).
The party is a centre-right coalition of separatists and federalists.
Legault's party is at 21% support in the Leger poll and could hold the balance of power if the election ends with a minority government.
The millionaire Montreal businessman has said he'll shelve the sovereignty option for the time being, but some critics have suggested he still has separatist leanings.
He insists he offers a new voice amid the old chatter.
"In the last 35 years, the two old parties, because of the sovereigntist-federalist battles ...went around in circles," he said.
"So it's time that we put this sovereigntist-federalist battle aside."
A wild card in the 34-day campaign will be the hundreds of thousands of students who have been on strike since Feb. 14.
The radical CLASSE association has said it will disrupt Liberal campaign stops to voice its opposition to a seven-year, $1,800 tuition hike.
Also looming over Charest's head, even if he wins the election, is the Charbonneau inquiry into corruption and collusion.
The commission has heard that the construction industry is overrun by gangsters who use public projects to launder proceeds of crime while money is kicked back to political parties.
Two Liberal fundraisers were among several dozen people arrested in anti-corruption sweeps in recent months.
Jean Charest in a nutshell:
Born: June 24, 1958, in Sherbrooke, Que., in the Eastern Townships
Education: Law degree, University of Sherbrooke. Called to the bar in 1981.
Career achievements: Lawyer with Beauchemin, Dussault (1981-1984)
Political career: First elected as MP for Progressive Conservative Party of Canada in 1984. Held several cabinet posts under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney including youth, environment, industry and sports. Resigned as sports minister in 1990 amid influence scandal.
Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada from December 14, 1993, to April 30, 1998.
Elected leader of the Quebec Liberal Party in 1998.
Elected premier of Quebec on April 29, 2003. Won three straight elections, including a minority government victory in 2007.