Jean Charest looks to be gearing up for an election before the end of the summer. After almost 10 years as Québec’s Premier, many are convinced that his time in that office will come to an end.
He’s facing plenty of challenges. The normal gravitational forces of politics mean that leaders who’ve been in office a long time meet up with a desire for change at some point.
But Mr. Charest should not be underestimated.
I can’t be completely objective about the Québec Liberal Leader. I first met him in 1993, and helped him with polling and advice in his federal leadership race and the 1997 election. He’s been a friend for many years.
So read this with all the salt you feel is appropriate.
With that caveat, here are a few reasons why he could defy the odds.
Over the years, Mr. Charest has become very focused on the economy of his province. His policy mix, including the ambitious Plan Nord, reflects a preoccupation with growth and a grasp of the province’s opportunities. In election after election, voters across Canada have favoured steady economic management, even if it meant suppressing an instinct for political change.
Despite fatigue with the Liberals, their leading opponents, the Parti Québécois, have struggled to pull ahead. More than any other reason, this is because most voters don’t want to talk about sovereignty, while most PQ activists think it can’t be avoided.
The Coalition Avenir Québec looked to be catching the wind of change in its sails, but has seen its support diminish. It presents a somewhat centre-right platform with emphasis on entrepreneurship and less government.
Mr. Charest ran his first election for premier on a platform that felt pretty right of centre, at least by Québec standards: it produced his only loss.
However, the challenges facing the other parties are only half of the equation. The rest has to do with Mr. Charest himself. His party’s numbers aren’t quite where they need to be right now; the regional concentration of his support means he must actually win the campaign, not just hold his own.
He’s easily one of the best natural political campaigners Canada has seen in decades. He’s disciplined, quick, has boundless energy, knows the value of optimism and a sense of humour. He has the rare ability to be self-critical – to know when he’s campaigning well, and when he needs to do better.
The last factor I’m fascinated with is toughness. Voters vacillate between wanting leaders who can be wounded by bad polls, and leaders who have a tough, impervious style. We want to know they are aware when we are mad, but we don’t want to feel they are constantly craving our approval.
My guess is that Mr. Charest would campaign with an X-factor that he hasn’t had before: the liberation that comes with low expectations and a full trophy case. In the course of his career in Québec politics, he’s had to overcome first too much hype, and later plenty of doubt. Today, he’s got little left to prove.
A loss would not surprise many, and he would exit office with a hall of fame-worthy electoral record. A fourth win would confound his critics, and establish him as one of the most successful politicians in Québec’s history.
Those who campaign with no fear of losing, often campaign at their very best.