Voters in an eastern Quebec by-election ended a 25-year reign by the Quebec Liberal Party and handed a tight victory to the Parti Québécois in the riding of Kamouraska-Témiscouata
The PQ wanted the by-election to be a test of voter mood as Premier Jean Charest struggles with numerous government scandals.
The PQ's strategy barely paid off with their candidate André Simard winning by 196 votes, obtaining 36.8 per cent of the vote to Liberal candidate France Dionne's 35.8 per cent. However, voters appeared to embrace the PQ's claim that the by-election would become a lighting rod for the huge level of voter discontent in the province toward the Charest government.
Victory will give confidence to supporters of PQ Leader Pauline Marois who argue that despite criticism within her ranks, she has the leadership credentials to lead the party to victory in a general election and give renewed hope to sovereigntists.
"Then we will be able to build the youngest country in North America: Quebec," Ms. Marois said Monday night as supporters in the riding cheered the traditional party slogan "We want a country."
The time has come to rid the province of "corruption and influence peddling," said Ms. Marois, as she reiterated her call for a public inquiry into allegations of corruption.
"The first line of defense of the Liberals has fallen. We have won in a Liberal fortress," Ms. Marois said." It shows that something is happening throughout the province ... You have sent a clear message to Mr. Charest ... that it is time that things change."
For Mr. Charest, the defeat adds to his government's woes. The Liberals refuse to buckle under the pressure of a majority of Quebecers calling for a public inquiry into allegations of corruption in the construction industry, the awarding of government contracts and illegal fundraising tactics unveiled by Liberal members.
Mr. Charest took comfort in the fact that his party lost the riding by a slim margin, noting that there were more spoiled ballots (296) than the PQ's margin of victory. Mr. Charest made no mention of a possible recount.
He promised that his party would return to win back the riding in a general election.
"My government, the Liberal government, and those here tonight including France [Dionne]will continue to fight for the future of the riding of Kamouraska-Témiscouata," Mr. Charest told a group of supporters in the riding.
"We will stand tall before those who are using every means possible to distract us from Quebec's agenda," Mr. Charest said in paying tribute to the late Claude Béchard, the Liberal Minister who represented the riding for 13 years. Mr. Béchard died of cancer last September at the age of 41.
A public opinion poll last weekend showed that Mr. Charest's government has hit record lows in popularity, with voter disapproval reaching 84 per cent. The defeat in Kamouraska-Témiscouata reflected that voter anger and may play havoc with his political future in the months to come.
The Action Démocratique du Québec candidate Gérald Beaulieu, who came close to winning in 2007, received 23 per cent of the vote, giving his beleaguered party a glimmer of hope after being destined to political oblivion no more than a year ago.
Voter turnout was surprisingly high with more than 57 per cent of the voters casting ballots.
Throughout the evening, the Liberals and the PQ were engaged in a heated battle and the lead changed hands several times.
In the end, though, not even the decision by Mr. Charest to award the Montreal Métro car contract to the Bombardier-Alstom consortium, giving a new lease on life to the Bombardier assembly plant located in the heart of the riding, helped his party hold on to the seat.