Charest’s by-election loss foretells a tough slog for Liberals

Quebec City — The Globe and Mail

Quebec Premier Jean Charest explains the reasons for leaving a negotiation table with student leaders as Education Minister Michelle Courchesne, right, looks away at a news conference at the Premier's office at the legislature in Quebec City on Thursday, May 31, 2012. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press/Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Premier Jean Charest’s by-election defeat on Monday in a riding the Liberals held for almost fifty years may be the prelude to the heavy political price his government will pay should he choose to call a general election late this summer.

Banking on the social unrest that has shaken the province for the past four months, the Parti Québécois mounted a surprising victory in the predominantly francophone riding of Argenteuil, just north of Montreal. The Liberals had no difficulty winning Monday night’s other by-election in the city’s predominantly non-francophone riding of LaFontaine. a party stronghold where a low voter turnout was a sign of the problems Mr. Charest faces in mobilizing supporters.

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The Liberals needed to win both by-elections to show Quebeckers that the tough law and order strategy against the student protest movement over tuition fee hikes would pave the way for a fourth consecutive term in office. The defeat in Argenteuil now raises questions over whether the Liberals handling of the protest movement was the right course to take in the wake of the much broader social crisis that has swept Montreal and other cities.

Night after night for the past fifty days, people have taken to the streets and banged on pots and pans in peaceful demonstrations, outraged at the social conservative policies the Charest government has been so determined to implement. Anger over allegations over corruption and collusion in the awarding of government contracts in the construction industry now being examined by a public inquiry has also fuelled the social unrest.

The Liberals were convinced that the protest movement could be contained, that it would eventually lose steam and that the majority of citizens would eventually side with their polices. The defeat in Argenteuil has proven them wrong and that the low voter turnout in La Fontaine pause for concern.

In Argenteuil, the riding was held by former Labour Minister David Whissell who quit cabinet in 2009 after a controversy erupted over the awarding of paving contracts without public tenders to a company in which he was part owner.

In LaFontaine, some voters of Italian descent didn’t take kindly to the way the Liberals handled the controversy over former Family Minister Tony Tomassi when he was forced out of cabinet and expelled from caucus. Mr. Tomassi is awaiting trial after being charged with fraud. His father Donato Tomassi, a longtime party fundraiser publicly expressed his anger at the way Mr. Charest had treated his son. The comments resonated in the Italian community where many voters refused to vote.

No doubt the PQ victory in Argenteuil gives the party a major boost in preparing for the upcoming election that it predicts will be called in mid-August for a mid-September vote. It also helps party leader Pauline Marois consolidate her grip on the party after last year’s debacle when four caucus members quit the party to sit as independents in denouncing the party’s soft-peddling of sovereignty.

Which leaves the newly formed Coalition Avenir Quebec and its leader François Legault with a major challenge. The party finished third in both by-elections, which will certainly make it more difficult to attract prominent candidates and much-needed funding for the general election.

Mr. Legault burst on the scene promising change by abandoning the traditional federalist-sovereignist divide that has dominated Quebec’s political agenda for decades. His platform has been sideswiped by the social crisis which now calls into question many of the pro-business policies his new political party was hoping to defend, such as greater privatization of health-care services and austerity measures to tackle the debt which grassroots community and social groups were now taking to the streets to denounce.

As the National Assembly completes its final week of sitting before the summer break, several Liberals were pondering their future in deciding whether or not to run again in the next election. At least a half dozen ministers and as many backbenchers, mostly from predominantly francophone ridings, were considering leaving politics. The defeat in Argenteuil may be the signal many were waiting for before making their final decision.