Charest looks to risky summer election as support drops, ministers quit

Montreal — The Globe and Mail

Quebec Premier Jean Charest speaks at a news conference as newly appointed Education Minister and Treasury Board President Michelle Courchesne looks on after she was sworn in Monday, May 14, 2012 in Quebec City. Ms. Courchesne announced on Monday she will not run for re-election. (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

As more of Jean Charest’s key cabinet ministers made for the exit, the Quebec Premier returned from a European vacation to launch what is by all appearances the unofficial start of his re-election campaign.

If anyone thought Mr. Charest might have lingering fears over initiating a mid-summer campaign with his low approval ratings and feeble support among the francophones who decide elections, his grin betrayed no hint of it.

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“Elections, we’ve had elections on all kinds of dates. Why, I was first elected on a Sept. 4,” the Premier said Monday, mentioning unprompted the date he reportedly favours for the next election with a campaign kickoff of Aug. 1. But he refused to say whether any date has been picked.

“Quebeckers are quite capable,” he said.

“We should have confidence in Quebeckers. Whatever the date of the election, Quebeckers will be able to handle it, and make their choice.”

Michelle Courchesne, the Education Minister who took over the portfolio in the spring in the middle of Quebec’s student crisis, announced she will not run for re-election as Mr. Charest was cutting a ribbon on an innovation institute at the University of Sherbrooke, in his home riding.

Mr. Charest’s own riding is just one of many he will strain to retake in the coming election – a campaign he could easily lose but still seems determined to launch as soon as possible for a number of reasons.

The last polls taken early in the summer showed Mr. Charest in a dead heat with the Parti Québécois but lagging among francophones.

But those voters were extremely volatile in the last federal and provincial elections and Mr. Charest is a deft campaigner – an attribute his chief opponents have yet to demonstrate.

A quick election call would allow the Premier to avoid the daily pounding his government is likely to take starting Sept. 17, when the Charbonneau commission resumes examining corrupt contracting practices between government and the construction industry.

A quick election would also give him the chance to capitalize on the thin vein of sympathetic public opinion he found by taking a hard line against students fighting a tuition hike.

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois, who backed the students and urged Mr. Charest to call an election on the student issue, has blasted him for preparing to campaign while Quebeckers are on vacation.

“Mme. Marois must be confused,” Mr. Charest said. “She’s been asking for elections for a year. Now that there will be elections, she doesn’t want them.”

Ms. Courchesne, who will complete her mandate before retiring, is just the latest in a string of a half-dozen powerful ministers to quit, including two in the battleground Eastern Townships region where Mr. Charest’s own riding is always hotly contested.

Monique Gagnon-Tremblay, a long-time cabinet stalwart and personal friend of the Premier, is also reportedly quitting, although spokesman Nicolas Rochette said the longtime minister “has not completed her reflection on her future.” The Canadian Press reported the Liberals have already picked her replacement.

Yvon Vallières, whose riding is also near Mr. Charest’s constituency, retired two weeks ago. Mr. Charest said the departures are all part of the normal turnover of a government that has been in power for nearly 10 years.

He pointed out the PQ has lost a handful of prominent members of the legislature as well, including popular former actor Pierre Curzi and former cabinet minister Louise Beaudoin.

“It’s part of political life,” he said. “There is talent growing behind those people.”

Ms. Courchesne, 59, had long been rumoured to be considering retirement from political life, but her departure may add to an impression that the education portfolio has become a political graveyard.

Ms. Courchesne replaced Line Beauchamp, who resigned suddenly this spring during a student boycott over a tuition increase that paralyzed many Quebec postsecondary institutions and caused occasional chaos, mainly on the streets of Montreal.

The government passed an emergency law in an attempt to restore order. The government’s firm stand in favour of the tuition hike was popular with Quebec voters, while the emergency law was far less so.

The protests have gone quiet over the summer as Mr. Charest ramped up preparations for an election campaign and the students reconsidered strategy.

Most of the student groups plan to hold votes in coming weeks to decide whether to pursue strikes into the fall. CLASSE, the more militant of three striking student groups, intends to stage rallies around the province that will carry into the upcoming election campaign.

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