Just as Quebecers are returning from their summer vacations they may find out they have to head straight to the polls.
Reports are circulating that Quebec Premier Jean Charest is getting ready to call an election for September 4, just after Labour Day. The recent announcement by Norman MacMillan, a veteran Liberal MNA, that he would not be running for re-election adds credence to the speculation. MacMillan himself said that he was asked to move his announcement forward by several weeks and that, though he didn't know the date of the election, it was coming.
The new rumours replace those that pegged the election date as September 17, coincidentally the same date the Charbonneau Commission into corruption in the construction industry is slated to re-start its proceedings.
The commission is likely to be very embarrassing for the governing Liberals and Charest is keen to avoid it. He does not have to call an election until the end of 2013, but as the commission is scheduled to run late into next year the Liberals have little room to maneuver. If the premier does not call the vote before the commission begins again, he will have to call the election either during it or just after it has completed. By then, his party will have taken a potentially fatal beating.
But September 17 is still relatively far off. Whereas a campaign starting in the first week of August will avoid the return of Quebec's students to class for a few weeks, a campaign starting in mid-August could be ill-timed. A later election date will also give Quebecers more time to tune-in, something the 9-year-old Liberal government can do without.
Moving the election up a few weeks will also catch some of Charest's opponents ill-prepared. Rumours of an impending election have persisted for almost a year and all the parties are accordingly ready for an election call, but there is no doubt that François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) party could have used an extra few months for their numbers to improve. When the party was leading in the polls earlier this year, Legault had a good chance of attracting quality candidates. Now that they are trailing the Liberals and Parti Québécois by double digits, he is less likely to convince well-known public figures to take the plunge.
The Liberals believe the student protest over tuition hikes is a good issue for them. They are on the right side of public opinion on the crisis, and have taken great pains to characterize the PQ's Pauline Marois as a sympathizer with those protesters who have caused disruption in Quebec's cities. But if the strikes drag on and Charest is unable to break the impasse, the protests could turn into another reason to vote the premier out of office.
The students will not make it easy for him. The most radical of the major student organizations, the CLASSE, is planning a cross-province tour this summer, and the other student groups are pledging to do all they can to get the anti-Charest vote out, particularly in close ridings. Though they are not explicitly supporting any one party, their efforts are most likely to benefit the Parti Québécois.
While low turnout usually benefits the incumbent, there is no guarantee that by calling a summer election the Liberals will have an advantage. The sunshine has not always kept voters away from the polling booths. The opinion polls give Charest a shot at squeaking out a win. An early September election may be his last chance.
Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.
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