09/05/2012 03:37 EDT | Updated 11/04/2012 05:12 EST

Charest's gamble costs Liberals

Jean Charest placed a big bet.

He gambled an unusual summer election would benefit from voters too distracted by vacations and long, torpidly hot days to be whipped up into anti-government fervour.

He gambled that going to the polls during the second week of university classes would spotlight Quebec's student unrest, an issue on which his iron hand and unwavering resolve gave him the most credibility among the major party leaders.

He gambled that it was better to head into a campaign now, before the Charbonneau Commission inquiry into corruption in the provincial construction industry starts its autumn hearings — and potentially exposes nefariousness within the Quebec Liberal Party.

He gambled, and he lost.

Charest, a canny politician and seasoned campaigner, has pulled off victories before when his government was unpopular and his personal ratings in the doldrums. But despite very early results that appeared to be in his favour, it was not to be on Tuesday night.

His Liberals slid to second place in Quebec's national assembly, and Charest lost his own seat.

With all the ridings counted, the Liberals were at 50 to the Parti Québécois's 54 and the Coalition Avenir Québec party's 19. Québec Solidaire held the remaining two.

The party lost key MNAs: junior finance minister Alain Paquet went down to defeat, as did junior natural resources minister Serge Simard, Agriculture Minister Pierre Corbeil and Natural Resources Minister Clément Gignac.

Seats that were once safe in areas like the Gaspé and Laval were purloined by the PQ and CAQ, respectively.

The Liberals return to Official Opposition status for the first time since 2003, without their feisty leader to fire them up in the legislature.

It will doubtless be cause for Charest to consider his political future. But on Tuesday night he showed nothing but determination, saying the strong support for the Liberals — who earned just one percentage point less than the victorious PQ in the popular vote — gives them a mandate to

"This is not the result I would have wanted," he said in his concession speech. "But I can tell you that I have the firm conviction that our party will continue to serve Quebec.

"There will be other chances for the Quebec Liberal Party. We have work to do. We proposed things to Quebecers, and now, faced with a minority government, we will be able to make our own contribution to further growth of Quebec."

Low popularity dogged Liberal leader

Charest, 54, headed into the campaign as the longest-serving premier in Canada, but also the country’s least popular, with an approval rating recently hovering around 25 per cent.

Allegations of political influence-peddling and corruption dogged Charest and his party in the couple years prior, finally forcing the Liberal leader to call the commission of inquiry into corruption in Quebec’s construction industry.

He campaigned on several fronts.

The economy was front and centre, and in particular his party's ambitious vision to create 250,000 jobs and bring Quebec to full employment via what it calls Plan Nord, a system of investment and resource development in the province's North.

But the S-word was never far from the headlines. Charest accused CAQ Leader François Legault, the former péquiste cabinet minister who left the PQ to found his own party and who remained uncommitted on the independence question, of being a closet sovereigntist. He said PQ Leader Pauline Marois was "playing casino with the future of Quebec" by pledging to hold a referendum, but not stating when.

In the end, the man who helped rally the forces of Canadian federalism in the 1995 Quebec referendum and swept the separatist PQ from power in 2003 couldn't use that theme to eke out one more victory, a triumph that would have written him into the history books as just the fourth four-term Quebec premier.