Call it the Charest paradox. Even though the Quebec Premier has never been much loved throughout his 14 years as head of the provincial Liberal Party, and even though a huge proportion of Quebeckers are dissatisfied with his government, Jean Charest still has a fair chance to be re-elected for a fourth mandate when he decides to hold an election – maybe in the spring.
This is due to two reasons: an unusual resilience that allows him to pass through the worst political storms with a kind of placid stoicism and Zen-like attitude, and the ineptitude of the opposition parties that will allow the Liberals to occupy the middle ground between an increasingly leftist Parti Québécois and the right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec.
A year ago, the PQ was poised to win the next election. Instead of quietly following the course toward a probable victory, party militants went through a six-month period of nasty infighting, prompted by the shock of seeing their sovereigntist brothers of the Bloc Québécois trounced in the federal election.
Six MNAs broke with the party amid loud complaints that leader Pauline Marois wasn't high enough in the polls and wasn't pushing hard enough for sovereignty. Some prominent party activists plotted a putsch against Ms. Marois for the benefit of Gilles Duceppe, while some others lugubriously announced the coming death of the party – a very public show of pessimism and internal division that made the PQ look immature and irresponsible.
Meantime, under pressure from her militants, Ms. Marois started moving the party to the left. She proposed a stiff tax hike on capital gains, a freeze of university tuition fees (already the lowest in Canada) and a strengthening of the language laws, including a measure that would forbid immigrants and francophones to enroll in anglophone CEGEPs.
Moreover, the PQ seriously considered an alliance with Québec Solidaire, a small left-wing party organically linked to the Quebec Communist Party and some extreme leftist organizations. Although the idea of an alliance has been shelved by Ms. Marois, it's still floating in the air, giving precious ammunition to Mr. Charest.
The new Coalition Avenir Québec, meanwhile, is positioning itself squarely on the right. Its leader, François Legault, intends to reopen collective agreements in the public sector to radically change the working conditions of, among others, teachers and general practitioners, and to introduce business-like ways of measuring "productivity."
Mr. Legault's previously good standing in the polls has sharply declined since he launched the CAQ. The party has had no convention yet and, incredibly, it's a lawyer from the law firm Heenan Blaikie who's writing the platform. Mr. Legault, who wanted to form a big coalition of sovereigntists and federalists, hasn't been able to attract a single federalist as a candidate, nor has he been able to profit from the PQ's disarray.
All this leaves Mr. Charest's Liberals comfortably sitting in the middle ground, where elections are won. His troops have remained loyal throughout the bad times, and the public outcry over scandals in the construction industry has abated, now that the Premier has finally set up a commission of inquiry. It will take months before it starts revealing damaging facts, so Mr. Charest has plenty of time to call an election – and maybe win at least a minority government. But, of course, anything could happen, given the extreme volatility of the electorate.