QUEBEC - As speculation begins about who will replace him, Premier Jean Charest said Thursday he believes he has left the Quebec Liberal party in good shape for his successor.
"As leader, I'm leaving behind a party that is in good health and that's important," said Charest, who announced Wednesday he is quitting politics after being defeated in the provincial election.
"When you're leader of the party, you're a caretaker and your responsibility is to leave the house in good shape. I feel that today."
While Charest lost his own riding in Sherbrooke, the Liberals won 50 seats, compared with 54 for the Parti Quebecois. The PQ took about one percentage point more in the popular vote than the Liberals.
Charest presided over a post-election meeting of elected and defeated Liberal candidates before meeting with premier-designate Pauline Marois to discuss the transition.
So far, no one is saying categorically they want to head the Liberals, who are now the Opposition.
However, Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier says he can definitely be counted out.
"I have already said I have no interest in the leadership of the Liberal party," Fournier said. "It's something I have said often and which I repeat again today."
Fournier, who said he'd like to see some candidates from outside the caucus as well, didn't exclude the possibility he would fill in as interim leader.
He said the party executive will meet to set the rules. Fournier indicated the contest will also be a chance at renewal.
"A leadership race isn't just about finding a chief," he said. "It's also an exchange of ideas."
Liberal member Henri-Francois Gautrin, who was re-elected in his Verdun riding in Montreal, agreed that the Liberals' stint in Opposition will be a chance to rebuild.
"A party that has been there for 10 years is a little out of wind and it must be able to present a message to the population that is suited to reality," he said.
As for who might fill Charest's shoes, Finance Minister Raymond Bachand said he's not ruling out a run at the job.
"I've opened the door in my head to reflect," he said. "I have really strong contradictory feelings."
Health Minister Yves Bolduc also said it is too soon to dwell on leadership issues. He said he'll see what the next few weeks brings.
"Today, I think it's Mr. Charest who's important."
Pierre Paradis, who lost to Robert Bourassa when he won the job for the second time in 1983, says he hasn't ruled it out.
"It's too early," said Paradis, who served in Bourassa's cabinet. "It hasn't been 24 hours since Mr. Charest told us about his decision."