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Quebec Premier Jean Charest speaks to reporters the day after his party won a byelection in Bonaventure, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011 at the legislature in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press/Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

The ever-combative Jean Charest will defy the odds and lead his party in seeking a fourth consecutive mandate in the next general election expected in 2012.

Mr. Charest is anxious to take aim at his main political opponent, the Coalition-Avenir-Quebec, the new political party headed by former Parti Québécois minister François Legault. Mr. Legault continues to hold a commanding lead in public-opinion polls with his promise to rid the province of the old sovereigntist-federalist divide and put the debate on the backburner for at least a decade.

"He is a separatist-sovereigntist who wants 10 years to prepare a referendum," Mr. Charest said in accusing Mr. Legault of having a hidden agenda. "Let's be honest here.… If it looks like a duck and if it walks like a duck, it's a duck. He's a sovereigntist and that's what it's all about."

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A formal merger between Mr. Legault's party and the Action démocratique du Québec is expected to be announced next week, closing a chapter in Quebec politics with the eventual death of the ADQ.

Sovereignty aside, the economy will be at the heart of the next Liberal campaign. Mr. Charest's government will aggressively promote the Northern Plan and the free trade deal between Canada and the European Community as major initiatives that will attract investments and create jobs.

The timing of the next election may depend on how successful Mr. Charest is in focusing public attention away from the allegations of corruption and favouritism that have contributed to the downward spiral in the Liberals' popularity.

For more than two years, Mr. Charest had resisted calls for a public inquiry into corruption in the construction industry and ties to party financing, fearing the irreparable damage such a probe would have on his re-election chances.

But earlier this fall, he bowed to public pressure and called an inquiry headed by Quebec Superior Court Judge France Charbonneau, after the head of the government's anti-collusion unit, Jacques Duchesneau, released a damaging report describing collusion and corrupt practices involving construction companies and engineering firms in the awarding of government contracts.

The government's integrity was further tarnished by the provincial auditor's report which showed several of the 18,000 daycare spaces allocated in 2008 were awarded to individuals whose projects were unqualified to receive them. In fact, many of the private daycare spaces were awarded to Liberal Party donors, according to documents obtained by the opposition. The province's anti-corruption squad is now examining the auditor's report to decide whether it warrants a police investigation.

Under normal circumstances, the Parti Québécois should have capitalized on the government's unpopularity. But Leader Pauline Marois faced serious problems in trying to contain dissent within her own ranks. Four party members had quit the party caucus, arguing Ms. Marois was too ambiguous on sovereignty. Two others quit for opposite reasons, saying they will join Mr. Legault's party.

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And the hemorrhaging within PQ ranks may not be over yet. "I hope it is. But you never know. I'm not in the minds of those who are reflecting on this," Ms. Marois said.

With Mr. Legault arriving on the scene, the PQ face the prospect of meeting a fate similar to that of the Bloc Québécois, who were decimated by the New Democratic Party in last May's federal election. Ms. Marois remained defiant, refusing to bow to those who have urged her to quit as party leader.

"We have had important failures in the last few months," she said. "But we have fought back, taking the initiative … and I will continue to do so as head of this great party."

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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