The Quebec election is down to a two-way fight for francophone votes between the province's top opposition parties, leaving Jean Charest's third-place Liberals with little time to avoid an embarrassing finish.
With an electorate that remains volatile less than one week before the vote, the front-running Parti Québécois took full aim at the economic platform of the Coalition Avenir Québec, arguing the second-place party will create financial havoc for workers, small-business people and middle-class families.
Hoping to win a majority on Sept. 4, PQ Leader Pauline Marois has stopped attacking the Liberals and is focused solely on trying to discredit the CAQ, hoping to stop the upstart party's surge.
The CAQ is plowing ahead, calling for widespread reforms across the province, stating it will not let the province's "old parties" block its proposals. In the event of a minority government, CAQ Leader François Legault said he would "not be patient" and could push for an election as early as next spring if his proposals for health-care and education reform aren't adopted by the National Assembly.
Ms. Marois accused Mr. Legault of being irresponsible for suggesting he could call an early election.
"Today François Legault showed his true face … he would force an election if Quebeckers chose a minority government. How irresponsible, how immature," Ms. Marois said to 250 supporters on Tuesday night in Rouyn-Noranda located in northern Quebec's Abitibi region.
The sharpening battle lines between the PQ and the CAQ are leaving little manoeuvring room for the Quebec Liberals. Jean Charest is scrambling to save his party after nine years in power, hoping to revitalize his campaign with a renewed attack against unpopular student protesters after recent flare-ups in Montreal.
On Tuesday, a new poll by CROP confirmed recent trends and placed the PQ in first place at 33 per cent and positioned to form a minority government. The poll suggested that at 28 per cent, the CAQ has momentum. The party is now clearly in second place among the province's francophone electorate that has an overwhelming sway in a majority of ridings.
At 26 per cent, the Liberals are seemingly bound for the opposition benches, especially with their low level of support outside of heavily anglophone ridings.
"It's a race to the finish [between the PQ and the CAQ] for the votes of francophones," said CROP pollster Youri Rivest. "Jean Charest has been losing support since the start of the election, and it doesn't seem to have subsided."
Mr. Rivest added there is still an opportunity for further change in each party's popular support, pointing out that Ms. Marois is less popular than her party, while Mr. Legault's personal numbers are moving upward.
"The Jell-O has yet to set," he said.
All leaders are hesitant to comment specifically on poll numbers, and Mr. Charest has been particularly adamant that they cannot be trusted, pointing to polling mishaps in the recent Alberta election.
In her attack on the CAQ, Ms. Marois told the Metropolitan Montreal Chamber of Commerce that the party would abolish tax measures to small and medium-size businesses, portraying Mr. Legault as unreliable and unpredictable.
"The CAQ wants to abolish tax measures that currently benefit high-tech industries," she said in her speech to the business group, arguing that the proposal would cause irreparable damage to Montreal. "The CAQ wants to eliminate a total of $2-billion in tax credits to businesses."
Going through the populous suburbs and semi-rural areas that surround Montreal, Mr. Legault insisted on the "urgency" of bringing about much-needed change in the province. The CAQ is promising a series of reforms such as tax cuts for the middle class, providing family doctors to everyone, fighting corruption in the construction industry, and bringing down the province's high dropout rates.
Mr. Legault said in the event of a minority, he will only collaborate with the other parties if his priorities are advanced, regardless of who wins the election.
"If another party is in power and is willing to work on those files, it will have our support," Mr. Legault said. "If they want to defend the status quo, we'll have opportunities such as the first budget in the spring of 2013."
Mr. Charest launched his campaign as the defender of order in the face of social unrest, and he returned to this tactic after protesters disrupted classes for a second day in Montreal over plans to increase tuition fees.
"Enough is enough. A week from the vote, we should allow Quebeckers to express themselves in peace," Mr. Charest said. "A lot of people watched what happened last spring from their TVs and their living rooms, and it'll be their turn [on election day]."
Trying to bring the conversation back to students seems like a last-ditch move by Mr. Charest, given that opposition to the student strikes is more popular with older voters –who traditionally support the Liberals – than with younger Quebeckers.
Mr. Charest's planned visit to Sherbrooke on Wednesday will be his fifth trip to his riding, suggesting that he is afraid of losing at home for the first time in nearly three decades in politics. One Liberal supporter said that Quebeckers are too harsh on the Charest government.
"Everyone is concentrating on the faults of Mr. Charest. This is a situation where people should be looking at the least of all evils. And there's no question that's Mr. Charest," said Pierre Gravel, a lawyer who has been a Liberal activist since 1985.