In the run-up to his mid-summer election call, Quebec Liberal leader Jean Charest has thrown millions of dollars at vulnerable ridings, signed a deal with the Crees to smooth the way for his Plan Nord and taken a vacation.

All this is in preparation for what is certain to be his toughest campaign yet.

Charest is the longest-serving premier in Canada, but also the most unpopular, and the level of voter satisfaction with his Quebec Liberal Party hovers around historic lows. 

Charest 'may have nine lives,' pollster says

Logic suggests the political veteran who came to the Quebec Liberal Party from the federal Conservatives in 1998 should lose this attempt to win a fourth provincial mandate, but time and again, Charest has beaten the odds.

"He may have nine lives," said Christian Bourque, vice-president of research at Léger Marketing, calling to mind the tight 2007 election in which Charest barely held on to his own seat.  "He was running third, behind the PQ and the ADQ — and he came back to win."

"The mythology around him is, he is a good campaigner," said Macleans' Quebec bureau chief Martin Patriquin.  "It's an adrenaline rush for him."


Jean Charest waves his Canadian passport before an audience in St-Joseph-de-Beauce during the 1995 referendum campaign.

Charest was dubbed "Mr. Canada" during the 1995 referendum campaign — theatrically waving his passport in one of the few memorable moments for the No side, warning the audience in St-Joseph-de-Beauce that a win for the sovereignty forces would cost Quebecers that valued document.

He is also a great debater.

"There is not a leaders' debate he has lost," Bourque said. "So that plays to the premier's advantage."

But in this 2012 contest, it is not clear that Charest's campaigning and debating skills will be enough to win him an historic fourth mandate, as the political landscape in Quebec is difficult to read.

Youth vote muddies the picture

The Liberal leader's refusal to give in to demands of tens of thousands of post-secondary students to freeze university tuition fees has won him some public approval, but the simmering conflict has politicized students and may be just the thing to mobilize the youth vote.

The striking students represent close to 150,000 voters.

"Let's say they massively turned out and massively rejected the Liberals — which would be my number one hypothesis," Bourque said. "Surely it would be to the advantage of the Parti Québécois, because these would traditionally be, in part, PQ voters who stayed home."

The Liberals 'have systematically underestimated our ability to mobilize,' —CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois

However, a lot of those youth votes could also go to the left-wing sovereignist party, Québec Solidaire, which is unlikely to have a big impact on the outcome except in the handful of ridings where the striking student vote is concentrated, such as the Plateau Mont-Royal riding of Mercier already held by that party's co-leader Amir Khadir. 

The leaders of the student boycott movement are certain they will make a difference.

"Since the beginning of the conflict, [the Liberals] have systematically underestimated our ability to mobilize," said the most militant of the student leaders, CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois. "That is an error I think they still make."

"We remember the Parti Québécois has already increased tuition fees," added Nadeau-Dubois, explaining why CLASSE is not throwing its support behind any mainstream party.

But certainly the opposition Parti Québécois is counting on the student vote.

The more conciliatory Léo Bureau-Blouin, who recently completed his term as president of FECQ — the federation representing most CÉGEP students — announced in late July he will run for the Parti Québécois in the Laval-des-Rapides riding.

PQ leader Pauline Marois should be benefitting from Charest's flagging popularity, but polls conducted just before the summer season show the two main parties locked in a statistical tie, with François Legault's untested new Coalition Avenir Québec lagging in third place — making it a tough election for even the most seasoned pollster to predict.

"At some point in the campaign, Quebecers will choose a least-worst option," said Léger's Bourque.  "Will it be the Liberals or the PQ?"

"It will be a weird one."