Jean Charest wants to be Quebec premier for the foreseeable future. As headlines go, it’s about as exciting as “Worthwhile Canadian initiative.” Politicians, even those as terminally unpopular as Charest, always say they’re sticking around, if only to stymie opposition and further confound pundits.
Yet the premier’s frank declaration on CBC Radio’s The House recently that he wants to fight an unprecedented fifth election, which must take place before December 2013, goes against the loud whispers in both Quebec and Ottawa. Charest, goes the speculation, is effectively a spent force in Quebec; the 52-year-old premier is rumoured to be returning to federal politics, where he got his start as an MP in 1984, as early as this fall—for a Senate seat, perhaps, or a plum government appointment.
But he claims to be staying put, and for a man who by all appearances is dragging his party down, he has party insiders and even potential rivals standing by him, including Benoît Pelletier, Charest’s former intergovernmental affairs minister, and a host of current Liberal cabinet ministers who have been notably silent about their own leadership intentions. Perhaps that’s because the Liberal Party of Quebec might actually be better off with the largely unloved and scandal-plagued Charest at its helm than without.
To be sure, it is difficult to overstate Charest’s unpopularity. Over the past eight months, a variety of scandals surrounding the province’s construction industry, alleged favouritism in the judge-selection process, the resignation of a cabinet minister, as well as recent tax increases, have hammered the premier’s already dicey approval ratings.
According to a recent Léger Marketing poll, nearly 70 per cent of Quebecers aren’t satisfied with Charest’s performance—his lowest approval rating in seven years in office. He is less popular than his own party, suggesting even diehard Liberal voters believe the government is on the wrong track. “People are completely disappointed in Jean Charest,” says Léger Marketing pollster Christian Bourque. “It used to be voters blamed the Liberal government for corruption or scandal. Now, they just blame the man himself.”
Yet the flurry of bad headlines cannot eclipse Charest’s biggest accomplishment so far: weathering the economic downturn. Quebec’s economy dipped less and rebounded faster than any other Canadian province’s, according to a recent RBC report. “Over the last decade, per capita economic growth in Quebec has been stronger than the average of the seven most industrialized nations, stronger than that of Ontario and the Canadian average, even stronger than the United States,” political scientist (and noted Charest critic) Jean-François Lisée recently wrote on his blog. Even population growth, long the province’s Achilles heel, is on the upswing, matching that of Ontario for the first time since 1976.
“When the economy does well we have the luxury of bitching,” Bourque says, when asked why Charest’s handling of the economy didn’t come with a corresponding bump in popularity.
Still, the strength of Quebec’s economy perhaps explains why, despite chronically low poll numbers, no one in the Liberal establishment has called for Charest’s head. It also might explain why the opposition Parti Québécois hasn’t been able to capitalize on the scandals surrounding the Charest government. The sovereignist party has been singular in its attacks on the premier’s credibility, suggesting (usually under the cloak of parliamentary immunity) that he is a stooge for the province’s powerful construction unions.
Despite this, and even though most Quebecers believe there is some sort of collusion between the government and Big Construction, the PQ’s popularity has barely budged. By far the biggest benefactor of Liberal missteps has been Amir Khadir, the lone MNA of the far-left Québec Solidaire, whose trenchant attacks on the Charest government have resonated with voters. As popular as he has become, though, Khadir doesn’t threaten Liberal support.
There is another reason why Charest may well stay to fight another election: there is no one who could do a better job. Despite his unpopularity, he is a fierce campaigner, having won three of four provincial elections in the last 12 years; he even won the popular vote, though not the seats, in his loss to Lucien Bouchard in 1998.
No potential replacement for Charest has been floated—save for one. Finance Minister Raymond Bachand is reported to have leadership ambitions, and spent a considerable amount of time glad-handing (and drinking with) Liberal delegates during April’s Liberal convention. But Bachand’s liabilities, apart from being a former sovereignist, are numerous: he recently tabled the least popular budget in the last 30 years, and he is unproven on the campaign trail. “I don’t see an heir apparent to Charest in the Liberal party right now,” says Bourque. If he’s right, it seems Quebecers will have Jean Charest to kick around for quite a while longer.