A winner will be declared in the wee hours of voting day in this tight Quebec election, but the most probable result is that no leader emerges with a mandate for bold action.
Mr. Charest may be starting his final days as Premier of Quebec, if polls are to be believed. Even if they are not, they indicate that Liberal Leader's party is unlikely to take much more than one-third of the vote. Pauline Marois and François Legault, his two rivals for the premier's office, face similar math.
Whether Mr. Charest is tossed aside or returned for a fourth mandate, Quebec is unlikely to see the end of recent turmoil. If the Liberals win, expect students protesting against tuition fee increases to return to the streets. If they lose, social unrest will be replaced by quarrels over national unity and language whipped up by the leader the polls say is his most likely replacement, Ms. Marois of the Parti Québécois.
An era of tortured minority government along the lines of the short-lived Liberal minority elected in 2007 is very likely. Those 21 months, unprecedented in Quebec's history, were marked by brinksmanship, budget crisis and constant election speculation.
The new government will also have to deal with a corruption inquiry that Quebeckers hope will undo a system of graft and bid-rigging that has permeated civic life in the province. While the Liberals will undoubtedly suffer the most, the proceedings are unlikely to enhance the image of any of the province's political actors.
While Ms. Marois and Mr. Legault of the Coalition Avenir Québec made gaffes during the campaign, shifted positions or ran away from discussing the tough choices facing Quebec if either of their parties wins power, most notably the possibility of a referendum on independence, Mr. Charest ran a polished campaign focused on the Liberal record. It was so smooth and so anchored in recent history, in fact, he made few promises for the future.
Even when Mr. Charest was on the popular side of issues, he seemed unable to extract much advantage. He committed the province to pay half the bill for a new arena for Quebec City, but the mayor took all the credit. Montreal's students had been expected to renew their protests in recent weeks to give him a backdrop to trumpet his law-and-order stand, but most of the strikers went back to school instead.
In his final news conference on Monday, Mr. Charest returned repeatedly to the risks of changing government right now.
His rivals were on less consistent footing through the campaign, something that was again reflected in how they spent the eve of voting day.
Looking beyond Tuesday's election, Mr. Legault gently began to play down expectations. Running second in polls with little organization and not enough money for extensive polling, the CAQ leader cannot be certain if he is headed toward disappointment or an upset victory.
He admitted in his final news conference that his ground game is weak compared with that of his rivals. He is unsure how his message of austerity has played with minorities or the suburban voters who will probably decide the election. Unlike the other two leaders, he is almost certain to get another chance if his party loses.
"Whatever happens, we've changed the perspective of the other parties," he said. "I think we'll have a good support from anglophones, but I think that at the next election, we'll replace, clearly, the Liberal Party. Right now, some of them will test us."
Ms. Marois, too, has seemed uncertain at times. She followed Mr. Charest to a festive event attended by thousands of Quebec City residents to mark the start of the arena construction project on Monday. The PQ Leader strolled within 10 metres of Mr. Charest before she veered off, apparently to avoid having to shake his hand.
While the PQ Leader's actions betrayed skittishness, her words were only confident as she predicted victory and promised a smooth transition.
"The Parti Québécois will form a responsible government. We are prepared to govern the day after the vote. There will be several changes, but it will be done in an orderly way," Ms. Marois said.
She argued that even a win with popular support of 33 per cent would give the PQ the legitimacy to proceed with a "sovereigntist government" agenda that would include using public funds to examine the feasibility of achieving Quebec sovereignty.
However, she said winning only a minority would make the task much more difficult. She predicted another election within a year.