Pauline Marois says she is more determined than ever to lead the Parti Québécois to victory in what she calls a "crucial election" for the future of Quebec.
But it can also be considered an even more crucial election personally for Ms. Marois, whose political career may be on the line. Anything short of a victory would put an end to her dream of becoming the first woman to be premier of the province.
In her second campaign as leader of the party and after nine years in opposition, Ms. Marois needs to prove that she has the credentials to lead the province and meet the challenge of renewing hope within the sovereignty movement in its quest for political independence.
"I am absolutely determined and ready like I have never been before. The PQ has everything it needs to be chosen by Quebeckers," she told a crowd of about 300 cheering supporters at a rally in Blainville, just north of Montreal, on the first day of a campaign leading up to the Sept. 4 vote.
The PQ is gearing up for a hard-fought battle in which uncertainty about the volatility of voters during a summer campaign overshadows Ms. Marois' message of hope. The PQ leader's strategy will be to focus on the allegations of corruption and collusion in the awarding of government construction contracts that have shaken Jean Charest's Liberal government.
The election is being held before the public inquiry into the controversy resumes public hearings in mid-September, which are expected to further embarrass the Liberals. And the election is also being held at a time when the social unrest stemming from the student protest movement over increases in university tuition fees will re-emerge as a major issue once classes begin later this month. More student strikes are expected that could result in clashes with police who will be under orders to enforce controversial legislation adopted last May that imposes restrictions on protesters.
Ms. Marois defended her support of the student demands for a freeze on tuition fees as she stood side by side with one of the leaders of last spring's student movement, Léo Bureau-Blouin. The 20-year old is running for the PQ against a Liberal minister in a riding in Laval, north of Montreal.
PQ strategy is aimed at consolidating francophone voters in regions just outside of Montreal where the party needs to stop any potential inroads from the newly formed Coalition Avenir Quebec under leader François Legault.
Ms. Marois presented a stable of new prominent candidates over the past week who will run in suburban Montreal ridings as part of her effort to draw nationalist francophones back to the party fold and show that the PQ and not the CAQ is the natural alternative to a "used and corrupt" Liberal government.
"The Liberals and CAQ are the same thing. They both fight for the same vision of Quebec," Ms. Marois said in speeches during her first day of the campaign on Wednesday.
Ms. Marois has been walking a fine line between defending sovereignty and committing to holding a referendum on the issue. Her fear is that a clear commitment to holding a referendum would alienate those francophone voters who may be tempted to support the CAQ and its platform of putting to rest the sovereigntist-federalist debate. Yet she has been careful not to anger sovereigntists who still expect the party to one day commit to holding a vote on political independence.
"We will not be voting for or against a referendum. We will be voting for a government who can offer policies that respond to the needs of Quebeckers," Ms. Marois said on Wednesday.