QUEBEC - If this was the launch of Premier Jean Charest's re-election message, it came out a little muddled.
A Power Point document, one which appears to drop a strong hint of what theme the Charest Liberals might be planning to campaign on, was obtained by the opposition — who promptly sent it to the media and attacked its contents.
The document suggests Charest is preparing to fit the ongoing street protests into a broader election narrative. The opposition PQ says the plan was presented last week at a closed-door Liberal gathering.
Under the headline "Ballot question," the document cites the planned election message as follows: "Jean Charest and the Liberal team with the northern (development) plan and job-creation? (Or) Pauline Marois and the PQ with a sovereignty referendum and the streets?"
Such a theme would come as no surprise, given that it stems from messages the premier has been repeatedly delivering in recent weeks.
But in that time Charest has repeatedly — even angrily — denied that he might be trying to let a social crisis fester so that he could use it to his electoral advantage.
So the release of that Power Point document had Charest on the defensive in a scrum with reporters Wednesday. And it allowed the opposition to launch attacks against his statesmanship.
Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois said the premier was tearing at Quebec's social fabric for his own partisan purposes. Another Pequiste, Stephane Bedard, said it's clear what Charest is trying to do.
"The premier has presented his election strategy — that of dividing Quebec, that of associating the Parti Quebecois with disorder. But to do that, he needs to maintain the chaos, he needs disorder, he needs people in the street," said Bedard, the PQ House leader.
"Because if there wasn't anyone in the street, he'd have no election strategy."
It's a familiar attack against Charest from his critics: that he is intentionally undermining peace talks with the students, and refusing to budge much on his tuition fees, because he wants to use the conflict as an election theme. Polls show the premier has strong public support for the hikes.
Charest has reacted with annoyance at such cynical suggestions — calling them grotesque. He said the tuition policy is the right thing to do, and has noted that he has budged several times on details of the tuition plan in addition to enriching loans and bursaries.
On Wednesday, Charest called the latest accusations surreal.
He said it's a bit rich for his opponents, who have occasionally been out in the street protesting themselves, and who wear the red square in support of the student protesters, to be accusing him of causing unrest.
"She's complaining that people are in the street — when she's in the street," Charest said of the opposition leader.
One other thing remains unclear: how did the opposition get its hands on such a document? Another opposition party, the CAQ, gleefully speculated that perhaps the vaunted discipline of Charest's troops was finally showing cracks, and that a Liberal leaked it.
An election is expected as early as September. Charest, who would be seeking a rare fourth term, must hold one by the end of 2013.