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quebec politics

Quebec Premier Jean Charest speaks to delegates at the end of a Quebec Liberal Party meeting Sunday, May 6, 2012 in Victoriaville, Que.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Two days before an expected election call in Quebec, Premier Jean Charest has indicated how he will position himself during the campaign – as the only federalist leader in the province.

The three major parties in Quebec are jostling to define themselves in the lead-up to the election campaign, hoping to rally a volatile and dispersed electorate to their camps. Gunning for a fourth straight victory but struggling in the polls, Mr. Charest is working to invigorate his traditional Liberal base, but also bring back any federalists who have decided to support the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec.

Speaking after a meeting of governors and premiers in Vermont on Monday, Mr. Charest slammed the Parti Québécois for its plan to try and wrest new powers and funding from the federal government, and use any failure to bolster its sovereigntist agenda.

"What is essentially their strategy? Cultivate fights and disagreements with Ottawa and the rest of Canada to promote a referendum," Mr. Charest said.

He accused PQ Leader Pauline Marois of refusing to openly discuss her strategy "when we're talking about the future of our country."

Mr. Charest then went after François Legault, the leader of the CAQ who is promising a 10-year moratorium on a referendum on sovereignty in order to focus on economic and social issues. A former high-ranking PQ minister, Mr. Legault is trying to walk a fine line during the campaign in a bid to attract both disenchanted federalists and sovereigntists to his newly formed party.

But Mr. Charest insisted that the CAQ is a sovereigntist force.

"I challenge anyone to find Mr. Legault saying, 'I am a federalist,' " Mr. Charest told reporters, repeating his comments in both French and English. "I don't think that will happen, he is a sovereigntist."

Mr. Charest is expected to call the election on Wednesday for a vote on Sept. 4. Polls show the electorate is angry with the Liberals after a string of scandals in the construction industry, but Mr. Charest is counting on a platform of economic growth and constitutional stability to remain in power.

With three-way races in many parts of the province, a number of outcomes are possible, including the election of a minority government.

The PQ has laid out plans for a combative relationship with Ottawa, vowing to launch a number of battles in order to obtain new powers and funding for the province in matters such as employment insurance, culture, and regional economic development.

"I don't see how we can lose," Bernard Drainville, a PQ MNA and lead party spokesman on constitutional issues, told The Globe and Mail. "If Quebec wins, it becomes stronger. If Quebec is rebuffed, the demonstration is made that there is a limit to our ability to progress in this country."

PQ strategists are trying to position their party as the only left-of-centre party in the province. The goal is to portray both the governing Liberals and the CAQ as being largely one and the same on constitutional and economic matters.

But Mr. Legault continued with his bid on Monday to position the CAQ as a pragmatic and constructive alternative to the Liberal Party and the PQ.

Vowing to put an end to months of unrest in the province's post-secondary education sector, Mr. Legault said his government would increase tuition fees in universities by $200 a year over five years. The hike is lower than the Liberal government's plan for increases of $254 over seven years, but higher than the PQ's call for the indexation of tuition fees.

"We're offering a compromise," Mr. Legault said. "The objective is to put behind us this crisis, which is perhaps among the worst crises Quebec has undergone in recent years."

However, the Liberals are arguing that because of differing tax breaks, their proposal is more attractive to many lower- and middle-class families.

"Mr. Legault should spend less time on Twitter and more time with his calculator," Mr. Charest said, pointing to his rival's well-known reliance on social media to reach Quebeckers.

While the race is heating up in Quebec, federal parties are striving to remain on the sidelines in Ottawa, even as the PQ is promising a series of constitutional battles.

"We're avoiding being dragged into this like the plague," said a senior Conservative official.

Graham Fox, the head of the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy, said that the best result for the Conservative government in Ottawa would be a Liberal victory, given the party's clear federalist agenda.

Mr. Fox said that federal parties are right to avoid being dragged into discussing the PQ's sovereigntist strategy during the campaign, but he added that "all federalists should be worried by it, both in Quebec and in the rest of the country."