Even though Premier Jean Charest has won three elections in a row, French-speaking Quebeckers never really embraced him, and these past few months it looked as if they were only waiting for an opportunity to express their anger and contempt.
So when Marc Bellemare, a former justice minister with a reputation as something of a loose cannon, accused Mr. Charest of having pushed for the appointment of three judges to please Franco Fava, a prominent Liberal fundraiser, many people chose to accept Mr. Bellemare's unproven allegations rather than the Premier's vigorous denials.
In another context, such allegations wouldn't have made waves. But Mr. Charest's popularity was already so low, the smallest rumour of a scandal was enough to seriously weaken his government; Mr. Charest, who had to react, created a commission of inquiry to deal with Mr. Bellemare's allegations.
Mr. Bellemare's testimony is fraught with contradictions. He remembers he drank Perrier water with the Premier, but can't remember the dates of meetings with Mr. Charest or Mr. Fava, or who else was present. The only material piece of evidence he produced is a cryptic note he scribbled on the back of a notebook as he was watching a hockey game. He can't explain why he waited seven years to denounce what he now describes as a scandal involving fundamental moral values.
Mr. Bellemare is suspected of having an axe to grind with the Premier. In 2003, when Mr. Bellemare, an activist lawyer for victims of car accidents, ran for office, his goal was to abolish no-fault automobile insurance. He resigned when he realized that this was not on the government agenda.
Mr. Bellemare has become a popular figure. On TV, he comes across as a calm and sympathetic ordinary guy. Reporters who remembered him as an excitable rookie politician were surprised at his poise and self-confidence.
Last week, Mr. Bellemare was granted the status of a "participant" at the inquiry, which means his lawyer will be able to cross-examine future witnesses and access documents and information that the commission gathered before the public hearings began. The government's and the Liberal Party's legal armada has already started to mount a formidable and methodical counteroffensive to Mr. Bellemare's charges, but Mr. Bellemare has won the public-relations battle - and in politics, image counts for more than hard facts.
Why is Mr. Charest so unloved? Of course, after seven years in power, a Premier will have infuriated many people for a host of reasons; Mr. Charest's reign has been far from stellar. But there are deeper factors at work. From the beginning, Mr. Charest's transplantation from federal to provincial politics was difficult. Mr. Charest, a down to earth man and thoroughly bilingual federalist who genuinely loved Canada, was perfectly at ease in federal politics. He was not prepared for Quebec's passionate and personalized brand of politics, which often revolves around emotional issues such as language, pride, honour and sovereignty. He tried to model himself after the late premier Robert Bourassa, who managed to toe a federalist line while accommodating the nationalists, but the act was not convincing. He still appeared too close to the business-federalist community.
By steadfastly refusing to appoint a commission of inquiry into corruption within the construction industry - an inquiry that Quebeckers almost unanimously called for in the wake of several scandals involving public works contracts - he opened himself to the old suspicion that the Liberal Party is controlled by fundraisers. This is why people were ready to believe Marc Bellemare when he pointed the finger at the influence that fundraisers supposedly have on the Charest government.
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