Liberal Leader Jean Charest is staking his future on the existence of a "silent majority" of Quebeckers who might be dissatisfied with his overall record but appreciate his handling of the recent economic crisis and the student strikes that paralyzed major cities this spring.
Launching a summertime election for a vote on Sept. 4, Mr. Charest is gambling that he can convince enough of his traditional supporters to turn up at the voting stations, giving him a fourth straight mandate despite high overall disapproval levels.
"In the last few months, we have heard a lot from student leaders, from people on the streets, we've heard from those who've been hitting away at pots and pans," he said at his first event of the campaign in Quebec City. "Now is the time for the silent majority to speak."
Quebec politics have been lit up by a series of scandals in the construction industry and major social unrest related to planned hikes in university tuition fees. However, there is also the possibility that a portion of the population could be turned off the election through a mix of cynicism and summertime blues.
Pollster Jean-Marc Léger said the early portion of the campaign will be a battle between all parties to shape the issue that will end up dominating the province's political landscape. He said the Liberals need to focus on their response to the student strikes and their plans to open up the north to more development, as they are the only Liberal issues that generate positively with Quebeckers.
The Parti Québécois, which is positioned to form a minority government according to the latest poll, hit the campaign trail before the official election call. The PQ must combat voter apathy, knowing there are no guarantees the record level of voter disapproval towards the Liberals will translate into PQ support.
The concern was apparent during PQ Leader Pauline Marois' first day on the trail as she hit on a series of issues in a bid to fire up her voters. "I would have preferred an election in the spring when voters were paying attention," she said in Trois-Rivières. "What I find regrettable and sad for our democracy is that Mr. Charest has called an election in the heart of summer."
She also reached out to sovereignist supporters, calling Canada a "risk" and promising them a country some day. Still, she refused to commit to holding a referendum for fear that soft nationalist voters may be turned off by the prospect of another federalist-sovereignist confrontation.
"We will take this decision [on a referendum] if we think we are able to win and if we are ready to ask the question. But that is an agenda that we want to leave open," Ms. Marois said.
She also defended her support earlier this year for the red-square-wearing students who opposed tuition fee increases. "I like being part of the street movement … being part of peaceful demonstrations," Ms. Marois said.
The upstart Coalition Avenir Québec wants to make a big splash on the issue of corruption on Thursday, announcing that it's first piece of legislation would be an omnibus bill on integrity. The legislation would beef up the powers of the Auditor-General and the Lobbying Commissioner, while tightening the rules related to the awarding of contracts.
CAQ Leader François Legault accused Mr. Charest of having deliberately stoked the student strikes this spring to distract Quebeckers from past scandals. "Everyone knows that over the last five months, Mr. Charest has tried to hide the elephant in the room, which is the issue of corruption," he said.
The latest poll by Léger Marketing, published Wednesday, placed the PQ (33 per cent) and the Liberal Party (31 per cent) in a near tie. However, the PQ is running ahead in terms of seat projections because of its lead among francophone voters, who have a disproportionate impact on final results through their geographic distribution.
The CAQ is in third place with the support of 21 per cent of respondents. Mr. Léger said the party needs to show early into the race that it can have an impact. "Within 10 to 15 days, we'll know if we are in a two-way or a three-way race," he said.
After the campaign launch, Mr. Charest insisted that Quebeckers have fundamental decisions to make, stating that the student strikes, supported by the PQ, jeopardized the rule of law in the province.
"I feel it in my heart, like I've never felt it in any other campaign, this is worth fighting for," said Mr. Charest, who is running in his ninth election at the federal and provincial levels. He was first elected to the House on Sept. 4, 1984, meaning that this year's election will occur on the 28th anniversary of his first victory.
He also attacked Ms. Marois' insistence on calling a third referendum on sovereignty, stating that being a part of Canada was an asset for Quebec.
"Ms. Marois pointed out today that Canada is a risk for Quebec? I mean, talk about stretching it," he said, calling Canada a "shining light" in the world economy.
Mr. Charest refused to make a connection between a summer election and the launch of the Charbonneau Commission into allegations of corruption in the construction industry, which will resume its hearings two weeks after the vote.
"Our adversaries have been asking for an election campaign for about a year, they've been clamouring for it. Interestingly enough, once the campaign is launched, they don't want an election campaign," he said.
The election will be the stage for a new type of televised debates, as private broadcaster TVA is organizing three events that will each consist of a one-on-one battle between two party leaders.