The riding of Argenteuil had been a Liberal bastion since 1966. It is the one former Quebec Liberal Party leader Claude Ryan chose when he set off to champion the "No" side in the 1980 referendum.
The stunning defeat of Jean Charest Liberals in Argenteuil, last week, is reshuffling the cards. Conventional wisdom had it that the Premier would call an election early in the fall, in order to capitalize on the widespread anger of the population against the disruptions brought on by the four-month long student unrest. Now some observers are betting that Mr. Charest will be tempted to postpone the election to the spring of 2013.
True, this was a by-election, and by-elections cannot serve as a basis to predict the outcome of a general election. True, the victory of the opposition Parti Québécois was a thin one, with fewer than 500 votes. True again, the result can be seen as an approval of the government's position in the "red square" psychodrama, since together, the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec, the third party that sided with the government in this conflict (and won 20 per cent of the vote), garnered a sizable majority.
Still, a victory is a victory, and the red square pinned on the lapel of PQ leader Pauline Marois, as she was celebrating this unexpected win, was enough to show that the student rebellion, despite its many violent episodes, couldn't serve as a lifeboat for the sinking Liberals, which have been stuck for months with a record level of dissatisfaction hovering around 70 per cent.
The low voter turnout in Argenteuil and Lafontaine (another stronghold that the Liberals kept) clearly shows that many Liberal voters stayed home. In Lafontaine, the traditionally huge Liberal majority was reduced by more than 60 per cent.
What happened is that the electorate voted on other issues – those that have so deeply affected the government's credibility for several years: the corruption scandals, the mismanagement of key dossiers, the favouritism in handing out daycare permits, the alleged collusion of the government with the big mining companies in the development of the north and so on.
There's an old political rule at work too: After three mandates and nine years in power, any government is tired and due for replacement, and the voters look for an alternative. The PQ is a highly credible one, since it is an established party that has governed the province reasonably well for 18 years.
A change of government would indeed clear the air, which has become polluted with a strong and deep current of "Charestphobia." Although this is partly unjustified, Mr. Charest is so vilified in so many quarters that there is little hope the turmoil will stop if the Liberals cling to power.
This relentless wave of negativity has visibly taken a toll on the Premier, who looks increasingly impatient and grumpy when he appears in public.
Even some Liberal voters would like Mr. Charest to resign, but at present, there is no obvious replacement. Nobody stands out among his cabinet ministers, and who would leave a successful career to lead a party that is almost certainly doomed?
The only hope for the Liberals is that the CAQ could snatch enough votes from the PQ to allow them to form a minority government. A more likely outcome would be a minority PQ government – a possibility that would reassure those who fear another referendum on sovereignty.