Today's by-election in Kamouraska-Témiscouata will be a crucial test for Jean Charest's government, as well as for Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois, who risks seeing her leadership undermined if her party does not win the riding.
Normally, the PQ would be a shoo-in. Not only are by-elections often won by the opposition - especially when the government is unpopular, as all surveys have been showing for months - but Kamouraska-Témiscouata, far from being a Liberal stronghold, is exactly the type of riding that could fall into the PQ's hands.
Located in the Lower St. Lawrence area, it is an entirely francophone riding that has elected PQ MNAs in 1976 and 1998 and given the Liberals razor-thin victories several times. Since 2003, the riding was represented by Claude Béchard, a popular young minister who died of cancer three months ago. This time, the Liberal candidate is France Dionne, a Liberal Party stalwart who has made a comeback after having spent the past six years as the Quebec representative in Boston.
Against all expectations, a CROP survey done a week ago for La Presse showed that the PQ doesn't seem to have been able to capitalize on the government's woes. PQ candidate André Simard is at 32 per cent, virtually neck and neck with Ms. Dionne at 34 per cent support, while the Action démocratique du Québec acts as a spoiler at 25 per cent. Moreover, and this is especially worrying for the PQ, among those who told the pollster that they would most certainly vote, 37 per cent favoured the Liberal candidate, six percentage points more than those who intend to vote PQ. The majority of those who say they are "undecided" are over 55 - and it's a well-known fact that older people tend to vote for the Liberals.
"By and large," says Youri Rivest, an analyst for CROP, "the Liberals are in a better position." This survey, however, should be handled with caution. Only 400 people were interviewed (a relatively small sample), and by-election results are characteristically unpredictable because there are many more local factors at play than in general elections.
What seems to be on the mind of most voters in Kamouraska-Témiscouata doesn't have much to do with the issues that make the headlines in the national media. These voters are focused on the economy, in a region where jobs are few and the population counts on government largesse.
It's no mystery why Mr. Charest's government decided to award the no-bid Montreal subway contract to the Bombardier-Alstom consortium, despite a more competitive-looking offer from a Spanish company. Close to 500 new subway cars will be assembled at Bombardier's La Pocatière facilities in … the riding of Kamouraska-Témiscouata.
In any case, if the Liberals win this riding, the PQ leader will have a hard time explaining why her party didn't benefit from the exceptionally high level of public anger against the government, which has been plagued by numerous scandals and allegations of corruption, and a widespread dislike of Mr. Charest himself.
Some elements in the notoriously fractious PQ might call for her resignation or at least mount a campaign against her. The next party convention is in April, and Ms. Marois will have to go through the painful experience of a vote of confidence. And there are several politicians waiting in the wings with an eye on Ms. Marois's job - from old-timers like Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe to young, dynamic MNAs such as former journalist Bernard Drainville.
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