Charest still in the driver's seat despite disappointing minority

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
Osprey, Thursday, March 29, 2007

Just because Quebec has no recent history of minority legislatures doesn't mean Jean Charest can't find a way to make this one work.

But first, after blowing a slam-dunk majority in the campaign, he has some fence-mending to do in the Quebec Liberal Party. Charest pushed Quebec into a late-winter campaign, rather than the one expected in mid-spring, to take advantage of plunging Parti Quebecois poll numbers.

But when the writ was dropped on Feb. 21 for a lightning 33-day campaign, no one anticipated dissatisfied voters moving to Mario Dumont, not in the numbers they did.

Another thing no one anticipated was that Charest, the best campaigner of his generation, would be missing in action for most of the campaign. No one, not even his closest friends and associates, could figure out what was wrong with him. As they say in French: il etait pas dans son assiette. Roughly translated, he wasn't himself. When the real Jean Charest finally showed up on election night, with the best speech of the campaign, the votes had all been counted.

And he had almost been counted out. Earlier on election night, both Radio-Canada and CBC had declared Charest defeated in his riding of Sherbrooke. With television networks still reporting him trailing, Quebec's chief electoral officer phoned Charest at his father's house in Sherbrooke to inform him that he had indeed won by nearly 1,500 votes. Radio-Canada will spend a long time wiping the egg off its face for declaring the defeat of a sitting premier in his own riding, especially since he usually runs behind in the early going, a fact that was in the computer.

Had he lost his own seat, it would have been very difficult for Charest to stay on as Liberal leader and head of a minority government. A byelection in a safe Montreal seat would have been awkward, especially when this election was a revolt of the regions against Montreal, with the Liberals falling to third place among francophone voters.

But finally, Charest got to claim a victory of sorts. He won his seat. His party won the most votes, 33 per cent to 31 per cent for the ADQ and 28 per cent for the PQ. And, most importantly, he won the most seats, 48, compared to 41 for the ADQ and 36 for the PQ.

Never have the Liberals formed a government with so few votes (indeed, they got 34 per cent in 1976 when the PQ formed a majority with 41 per cent). But never has Quebec seen such a competitive three-party race. It has resulted in a minority House whose composition, exceptionally for the first-past-the-post system, closely reflects the popular vote. The Liberals' 33 per cent of the vote has resulted in 38 per cent of the seats; the ADQ's 31 percent share of the vote has translated into 33 per cent of the seats, while the PQ 28 per cent has produced 29 per cent of the seats.

While this is a challenge for Charest, it is also an opportunity. The mathematics of a minority House aren't all that compelling. A minority, whether precarious or comfortable, is still a minority. The thing is to find a dance partner. Fortunately for Charest, neither Dumont nor Boisclair is in any hurry to force an early election.

Dumont, a one-man show until now, needs to assemble an official opposition that can meet the test of a government-in-waiting. That will take a good two years in the legislature.

As for Boisclair, he will have his back to the wall in a party that eats its leaders, let alone its young. Under his leadership the PQ has fallen to third place in both the popular vote and seats in the legislature. The only consolation for Boisclair in this is that the leadership of a third party is a prize that no one will want.

As for Charest, he gets to name a cabinet, write a throne speech and bring in a spring budget, which Dumont has already declared he will support.

For Charest, the next two years will prove to be either a road to redemption, or one that provides a two-term premier with an elegant exit strategy.

 
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