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Race for Quebec Liberal leadership promises to be fast but furious

Philippe Couillard, shown with then-premier Jean Charest in 2008, is seen as a potential front-runner in the race to replace Mr. Charest as leader of the Quebec Liberal Party.


The race to replace Jean Charest as leader of the Quebec Liberal Party will be a short one.

The party has to act quickly in case the newly elected Parti Québécois minority government is toppled in a confidence vote over its budget next spring, propelling the province into another election.

The countdown to the first Liberal leadership convention in almost 30 years will begin in earnest next month, with a meeting to establish the rules for the race, choose a venue and decide on a date for the convention in early 2013.

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On Wednesday, the caucus is expected to appoint outgoing Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier as interim leader.

The Liberals will not use the one-member one-vote system that many parties adopted in recent years to choose a leader. What will unfold will be old-style politics: about 3,000 delegates from all 125 ridings will vote at the convention, a return to the tension-filled drama that once characterized such contests.

Prominent Liberals are already assessing their chances, with most eyes focusing on Philippe Couillard, a former health and social services minister, as a potential front-runner.

Mr. Couillard confirmed in an e-mail that he is considering throwing his hat into the ring. "I don't plan on giving any interviews until I have taken my decision," he stated.

If Mr. Couillard runs, other parties are likely to resurrect allegations that he was in a conflict of interest for negotiating a job in the private health-care sector in 2008 while he was still health minister.

Mr. Couillard was hired as a strategic adviser for Persistence Capital Partners (PCP) LP, a private equity fund in the health-care field, shortly after quitting as minister of health. An investigation in 2009 by the province's lobbying commissioner, André C. Côté, cleared two of the directors of PCP involved in hiring Mr. Couillard of any wrongdoing. Mr. Côté had no authority to investigate the allegations against Mr. Couillard.

Public hearings that begin next week into allegation of corruption and collusion in the awarding of government construction contracts could influence who ends up in the race.

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Mr. Couillard has the advantage of having been out of government when the allegations – involving everything from construction contracts to the awarding of daycare permits, and even the nomination of judges – were made public. An inquiry cleared Mr. Charest of wrongdoing in connection with the allegations of questionable practices in judicial appointments.

Another former minister who was absent during those years was Benoît Pelletier, who was minister of intergovernmental affairs until 2008. He has confirmed that he is considering a run for the leadership.

Several members of the Liberal caucus are also weighing their options including Finance Minister Raymond Bachand, Transport Minister Pierre Moreau, Labour Minister Lise Thériault, Health and Social Services Minister Yves Bolduc, Minister of Economic Development Sam Hamad and backbencher Pierre Paradis.

Mr. Paradis finished second to Robert Bourassa in the last leadership race – in 1983 – just ahead of Daniel Johnson, who was chosen for the job in 1994. Mr. Paradis wanted to seek the leadership in 1998, but was warned off by high ranking Liberals who favoured Mr. Charest. Mr. Charest left Mr. Paradis out of his cabinet over the past nine years despite his experience in government.

The Liberals will hold a general council meeting in October to launch the leadership race officially. Throughout the fall, each riding association will elect 24 delegates to attend the convention. Under the party's constitution, each riding's delegates must include an equal number of men and women and eight from the youth wing.

Delegates will become the centre of intense campaigning right up until the convention, when the supporters of candidates defeated on the early ballots often determine the outcome, sometimes with surprising results.

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