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crunching numbers

A studen wears a mask depicting Quebec Premier Jean Charest during a protest against tuition hikes in Montreal on April 14, 2012.Graham Hughes

Dogged by student strikes and the looming inquiry into construction-industry corruption, Jean Charest is nevertheless in a neck-and-neck battle with the Parti Québécois as the remaining lifespan of his government can be counted in months.

According to's seat and vote projection model, the Parti Québécois currently holds a narrow lead over the Quebec Liberals with 33.1 per cent to 32 per cent support. While this represents a significant gain for both parties since the end of February, with the PQ picking up 3.7 points and the Liberals three, it is a far closer race than was recorded by the polls only a few weeks ago.

Throughout March and the first half of April, the PQ was averaging a lead of almost seven points over the Liberals. A remarkable turnaround after almost a year of being on the brink of catastrophe, the PQ was on track to form the province's next government with a majority. But with current levels of support, Pauline Marois would have a tough battle just to land a minority.

François Legault's Coalition-Avenir-Québec has dropped 6.8 points since the end of February and trails in third with 20.4 per cent support, though some recent polls show that the right-of-centre party might have a little more life left in it.

Québec Solidaire stands at 7.5 per cent while the provincial Greens are projected to have 3.9 per cent support. Other parties, including the hard-line sovereigntist Option Nationale, pull together 3.2 per cent support.

Based on these numbers, the Parti Québécois would likely win 60 seats in the 125-seat National Assembly, putting it three seats short of an outright majority. The Liberals would win 53 seats, down 11 from their current crop of MNAs, while the CAQ would win 10 seats and Québec Solidaire two.

A close result like this has the potential to make for a complicated post-election period. Both the Liberals and PQ could look to the CAQ for support in order to govern, while if the PQ and Québec Solidaire, both left-of-centre sovereigntist parties, managed to win an extra seat or two they alone could command a majority of seats.

But while the National Assembly might soon be a hodge-podge of voting blocks, Quebec's political geography could also be divided between the parties. The Liberals are leading in both the Montreal metropolitan area and in Quebec City, while the PQ is ahead outside of the two main urban areas.

In and around Montreal, the Liberals lead with a projected 34.7 per cent support, a slight drop from their standing at the end of February. The PQ is up almost five points to 29.3 per cent in the region, with the CAQ trailing in third with 18.1 per cent.

But Quebec's largest population centre is far from homogenous. Polls suggest that the CAQ is far more competitive off the island of Montreal than they are on it, where Québec Solidaire is actually vying for third position. And while the Liberals are dominant among non-francophones with 64 per cent support, the French-speaking population of Quebec is split three ways: roughly 38 per cent support the PQ while 26 per cent opt for the Liberals and 23 per cent for the CAQ. This points to Montreal being split between the PQ in the francophone east and the Liberals in the anglophone west, with tight three-way battles being waged in the suburban areas around the island.

In Quebec City, the Liberals have benefitted from a significant increase in support. They have jumped 10 points since the end of February to 36 per cent, taking virtually all of those new voters from the CAQ, which trails in third with 25.3 per cent. The Liberal lead allows Mr. Charest to win the bulk of the area's 11 seats, leveling a playing field which has traditionally given the PQ a boost due to its disproportionate support among francophones province-wide.

In the rest of Quebec, the PQ holds a wide 10-point lead with 38.5 per cent support to 28.7 per cent for the Liberals. Here again the Liberals have dipped into the CAQ's voting pool, with Mr. Legault's party dropping eight points to 21.3 per cent support. Though this sort of margin gives the PQ the lion's share of rural seats, there are pockets of Liberal support in the Gaspésie and the Outaouais and CAQ support in the Centre-du-Québec and the Beauce region.

The student strike closed Jean Charest's election window this spring, and instead Quebeckers in the ridings of Argenteuil and LaFontaine will be voting in two by-elections. The Liberals are heavily favoured in both seats, though the CAQ is putting up a former Bloc Québécois MP in Argenteuil. Some polls have shown the provincial race tightening between the three parties, and the results in Argenteuil in particular could give an indication of the CAQ's strength.

Political support in Quebec has swung widely for the last 12 months, ever since the New Democrats demolished the Bloc and the PQ's internal troubles sent them on a downward spiral (which only reversed itself earlier this year). The CAQ has gone from the government-in-waiting to also-ran and now to kingmaker status. Through it all, the provincial Liberals have staggered from crisis to crisis. Jean Charest has been waiting for an opportune moment to call an election, but with things so tumultuous in the province there is no telling which way the wind will blow when the next window opens. 's projection aggregates all publicly available polls, weighing them by sample size, date, and the polling firm's accuracy record. The seat projection model makes individual projections for all 125 ridings in the province, based on the provincial and regional shifts in support since the 2008 election and including the application of factors unique to each riding, such as the effects of incumbency. The projection is subject to the margins of error of the polls included as well as the unpredictable nature of politics at the riding level.