Charest, who has been in office since 2003, will be attempting to win his fourth mandate. He is likely in for a difficult campaign.
Recent polls suggest that Charest's Liberals are tied with Pauline Marois and the Parti Québécois at about 32 per cent support, while the upstart Coalition Avenir, led by Francois Legault, sits at about 20 per cent.
Voters will surely judge the incumbent on his handling of this spring's student protests, Quebec's crumbling infrastructure and the province's staggering debt, which sits at around $184 billion, or 55 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).
"This election is about the future of the province," says Luc Turgeon, a professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, with Quebeckers deciding on a "new model for economic development and social policy."
Here's a look at three issues certain to figure prominently in the campaign.
“What has transpired in Quebec in the last few months is a bit of a social crisis,” says Turgeon.
This past spring, students took to the streets in droves to protest the Liberal government’s proposed tuition hikes. The students soon gained support from a number of labour unions.
The demonstrations choked up cities such as Montreal, Laval and Victoriaville — disrupting signature events like the Grand Prix celebrations — and prompted the government to pass Bill 78, an emergency law that sets limits on protests.
Political watchers have noted that it was the sheer size and intensity of the demonstrations — some of which drew as many as 300,000 people – that forced Charest to call the election.
He acknowledged the student actions during his Aug. 1 news conference, saying, “In the last few months we’ve heard a lot from a number of student leaders. We’ve heard from people in the street. We’ve heard from those who have been hitting away at pots and pans. Now is the time for the silent majority.”
While the spring rallies appeared formidable, less than one-third of students took part in them and the majority of Quebecers actually sided with the government on the issue of a tuition increase.
After a bit of a summer hiatus, the rallies resumed almost immediately after Charest announced the election call, with reports of protesters clashing with police on Wednesday night.
Some commentators have suggested that the anti-Charest sentiment engendered by the student protests is likely to increase voter participation among Quebec youth. For the 2008 election, the turnout rate among the 18-25 demographic was below 50 per cent.
The government wants to increase student tuition to help reduce the provincial debt, the highest in Canada.
While the protests were predicated on a proposed tuition hike, Turgeon says that the demonstrations were a symptom of growing dissatisfaction among the province’s youth about their future job prospects, and part of a larger discussion about the most effective means of slaying Quebec’s considerable debt.
Turgeon says that the student actions reflected “an interrogation about the future of the province, in terms of the adjustments needed to respond to the economic crisis that we’ve had,’” he says.
“There will be a big debate about what kind of future we want for the province, and, do we need to cut programs to fight the deficit, or is there another approach to fighting the deficit that doesn’t cut programs,” says Turgeon.
For the last few years, the Charest government has been dogged by accusations of corruption linking some top Liberal politicians to shady deals with members of the province’s construction industry.
This past spring, Quebec's Permanent Anti-Corruption Unit arrested 23 people, including building magnates Paolo Catania and Tony Accurso, former Montreal executive committee chairman Frank Zampino and Bernard Trépanier, a former top fundraiser for Union Montréal, the municipal party of Montreal's current mayor, Gérald Tremblay.
Robert Libman, a former member of the national assembly and one-time leader of Quebec's Equality Party, told CBC Radio that the very timing of the election was part of an effort to divert attention from potential scandals about inflated public-works projects.
The Sept. 4 vote takes place two weeks prior to the resumption of the Charbonneau inquiry on Sept. 17. Chaired by France Charbonneau of Quebec Superior Court, the commission is looking at allegations of corruption in the construction industry and possible links with political party financing going back 15 years.
"Mid-September is when things kick into high gear, and the last thing a premier wants is to be in an election amid all these possible discussions about corruption and scandals," Libman said.
Even so, the other parties will undoubtedly continue to question Charest's commitment to fighting corruption, given that it took him two years after allegations of malfeasance became public to finally establish the inquiry.
Many commentators claim that Quebecers are in no mood to consider seceding from Canada, suggesting that interest in this position has dropped since the divisive 1995 referendum, in which the province voted narrowly in favour of federalism.
A recent Ipsos-Reid poll found that among Quebecers who have made up their mind about secession, 62 per cent would vote against it. Yet Charest insists that the Parti Québécois is spoiling for a referendum.
Talking to reporters after a meeting of governors and premiers in Vermont on July 30, Charest said the aim of the Parti Québécois was to "cultivate fights and disagreements with Ottawa and the rest of Canada to promote a referendum."
Charest went on to label Coalition Avenir chief Francois Legault, whose party absorbed members of Action Democratique du Quebec, "a sovereigntist."
Daniel Turp, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Montreal, says this "will be a recurring theme in the campaign."
Charest "has suggested that Madame Marois has to, and necessarily will, hold a referendum in her first mandate, even though the PQ program doesn't say that," says Turp, who has served as both a Parti Québécois member of the Quebec National Assembly and a Bloc Quebecois MP in Ottawa.
"I think he'll emphasize the possibility of a referendum and the breakup of Canada if the PQ takes office," says Turp.
Turgeon says pre-election polling about sovereignty can be misleading.
"Something that I think is not very well understood in the rest of Canada is that it's one thing for Quebecers [to say they're] not wanting a referendum, but if you have a PQ [in power] that says, 'Whatever, we're just going to call a referendum,' then actually support for Quebec sovereignty is pretty high," he says.