With negotiations breaking down last Thursday and no end to the student protests in sight, Quebec can expect a long and tumultuous summer. What better way to cap a season of turmoil than with a general election?
That appears to be where the province is heading. Neither the government nor the student leaders seem willing to budge more than a little on their positions, with both accepting the idea of compromise only within the rubric of their own entrenched positions. On the one side, the Liberal government wants to increase tuition fees, while the students want a freeze in tuition hikes. The wiggle room appears to exist only in how these goals are achieved.
The chances that the social unrest will come to a rapid close appear slim, especially after CLASSE, one of the major student associations and the least compromising, elected a third spokesperson considered to be even more radical than the other two. On the other side of the bargaining table (though he has rarely sat at it), Jean Charest believes his hard-line approach to the students is politically beneficial.
Talk in Quebec is that an election will be called for mid-September, with the campaign starting in August. Though an election is unlikely to put an end to the impasse between the government and the students, it will certainly strengthen the Liberals’ position if they manage to come out on top.
Calculations within the Liberal Party of Quebec put mid-September as the last potential electoral window for Charest. The premier has to call an election before the end of 2013, but with the Charbonneau Commission into corruption in the construction industry (which has the potential to tangle the Liberals in its web) scheduled to run right through to the end of next year, the general consensus is that Charest needs to go sooner rather than later. It’s likely he would have preferred a spring election, but the students ensured that was impossible.
While the questions the Charbonneau Commission raise can hardly be avoided during the campaign (the inquiry would probably start in the final week, though it is unlikely to have any damaging revelations so early in its investigation), they could be overshadowed by an on-going crisis over tuition fees. The Liberals believe they are on the right side of that issue. And in the unlikely case the government finds a solution, Charest can bask in the afterglow.
Nevertheless, the wily premier still faces an uphill battle. Polls show the Liberals neck-and-neck with the Parti Québécois, while the Coalition Avenir Québec is not far behind. An election campaign could turn these numbers on their head, but at the very least Charest, a more experienced campaigner than either Pauline Marois or François Legault, has a decent shot at a fourth term.
By-elections scheduled for June 11 will serve as an early test. LaFontaine, a safe riding for the Liberals, is not expected to be much of a race. But in Argenteuil, a more rural riding between Gatineau and Montreal, the Liberals face stiff competition from the PQ and the CAQ. The by-election will provide an indication of the Liberals’ strength outside of the metropolis, where they have support for their approach to the student protests, as well as the PQ and CAQ’s ability to beat the governing party.
A good result for Charest in Argenteuil could be the opening act of a summer of political theatre in Quebec. But will he still be on the stage when the curtain falls?
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.