“Pour le Québec,” the slogan on the side of Jean Charest’s campaign bus reads. Presumably “Contre le Québec” performed poorly in focus groups.
It is always a good idea to say “Quebec” as much as possible in Quebec elections, and the Quebec Liberals are usually thought to be running at a deficit on this score, so they must always try harder. Charest’s opponents include the Parti Québécois, whose logo is a ‘Q’ for Quebec; Québec Solidaire, whose logo is a ‘Q’ for Quebec; and the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec, whose logo is a ‘Q’ for Quebec. This is more or less how Canada came to have a football league in which most of the teams were named Roughriders.
When he first ran for premier in 1998, Charest tried to establish his credentials by publishing a Jiffy-Pop insta-book with the title, J’ai choisi le Québec, I chose Quebec. Which led Mario Dumont, the acerbic leader of a temporary little party, to ask the Liberal leader a hard question in the televised debate: “Vous avez choisi le Québec. Par rapport à quoi?” You chose Quebec instead of what?
Charest didn’t win that election. But he has won all the elections since. That he is even considered to have the faintest chance of winning this one is some kind of tribute to his tenacity. The significant premiers of modern Quebec history — Jean Lesage, Robert Bourassa, René Lévesque and (I’m gonna say) Jacques Parizeau — all had more interesting projects than Charest, who abandoned early dreams of “re-engineering Quebec” in favour of “doing what it takes to win elections” a decade ago. It’s comic that he’s running now on a policy of increasing university tuition fees, after maintaining a tuition freeze for his first mandate and barely mussing the freeze’s hair in his second. If he could back down from that policy now, he would. And it’s significant he’s not going to run on a promise to clean up the rampant corruption in the construction industry and in party fundraising: he would not be believed.
Charest is instead running as the candidate of normality, as the devil you know, or as the regular guy you know under whom the only devils who run free are the devils you already know. The alternatives, he’ll argue, are “the street and a referendum,” a reference to the PQ’s support for tuition-fee protesters and to its sovereignty project. I’m watching him deliver his kick-off speech at Quebec City’s airport, promising “peace” and “stability” in an election that “is not like others.”
Pauline Marois has recruited formidable candidates and, as the campaign begins, seems set to benefit from voters’ awesome fatigue with the Charest Liberals. François Legault’s centre-right party hopes to play spoiler, although Legault’s fondness for splitting every difference he encounters risks making him unexciting to too many voters, or simply ridiculous. He has said René Lévesque is his idol but that he’ll never promote secession. He is proposing a smaller and slower tuition hike than Charest, a policy that would bring Quebec’s universities less money while buying a highly hypothetical Legault government no less grief from protesters.
Don’t ask me how it’ll end. It will be a dark, bitter campaign. And fascinating.