Can Jean Charest survive the student strike?

Although a cabinet minister has become a casualty, and the conflict between the Quebec Liberal government and student protesters remains unresolved, Premier Jean Charest may emerge as the winner in the dispute, some observers say.
Quebec Education Minister Line Beauchamp announces her resignation as Premier Jean Charest looks on. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Although a senior cabinet minister has become a casualty, and the conflict between the Quebec Liberal government and student protesters remains unresolved, Premier Jean Charest may yet emerge as the winner in this dispute, some observers say.

To be sure, Charest suffered a huge blow this week when the province's education minister and deputy premier, Line Beauchamp, resigned her post and her seat over her inability to resolve the months-long student "strike."

But polls suggest that so far public support for the government's position to raise tuition fees over the next several years is strong and continues to grow.

"Right now it seems the hard line is paying dividends for the Liberal Party," says Jean-François Godbout, assistant professor of political science at the University of Montreal. "They are in territories where they could form a minority government or majority government if things go very well for them."

This is a big change from the situation only a few months ago when the opposition Parti Québécois was leading the Liberals by about seven percentage points in some polls.

But, as Godbout notes, the standoff with the students is "moving attention away from all the numerous scandals that have plagued the Liberals and is working toward their advantage."

On the issue itself, on whether to hike tuition fees, Charest's government has gained support over the last few weeks, according to some polls.

In a survey by Leger Marketing on May 10, 60 per cent of Quebecers are backing the government's position on increasing fees, compared to 34 per cent who are siding with the students.

That's up since the start of the conflict when, after about only a week of protest, only 48 per cent of those polled supported the government's position.

An earlier CROP survey on May 3 showed even higher support for the government's tuition stance, at 68 per cent.

The Leger poll, however, also found that while a majority supports the government's position on increasing tuition, many are not happy with how it has dealt with the students. Around 71 per cent believe the government has badly managed the conflict and 76 per cent say they are dissatisfied with the provincial government. (CROP's poll had dissatisfaction at 67 per cent.)

But both polls show the Liberals gaining support overall.

Leger found the Liberals have increased their standing by a couple of percentage points over the last few months, with support at around 28 per cent. Meanwhile, Pauline Marois's PQ, which has backed the protesting students, has seen its support drop to 31 per cent in the Leger poll.

(CROP pegs support for Charest at 31 per cent compared with 25 per cent for Marois.)

But Christian Bourque, of Leger Marketing, said that while Charest is in a better position politically than he was a few months ago, this does not necessarily translate into electoral success.

"Even if you have this massive pool of support for increasing tuition, it does not directly translate to that many more votes for the Liberals because they have other legacy issues," Bourque said.

"It's hard to see where he's got that window where he could capture a majority government in an upcoming election unless we miraculously came out of this crisis in a very, very short term, because I think the next deciding moment is how will this be resolved.

"If it's resolved fairly quickly and the resolution is seen as fairly favourable and includes an increase in tuition, maybe then he'll start improving his numbers more rapidly."

There has been increased speculation about an early election in Quebec of late, even though Charest categorically ruled out a snap call earlier this month when he thought he had reached a deal with the striking students' groups. His mandate doesn't run out until the end of 2013 and he still has a slim majority in the national assembly.

But Alain-G. Gagnon, a professor of political science at the University of Quebec in Montreal, feels Charest is using the student strike to improve his own stature.

Gagnon believes Charest has been "negligent" over the past 14 weeks in addressing the students' issues and speculates that "perhaps he [Charest] wants to force an election, he wants to force the student body to continue to react to his own position of law and order, and as he's doing that I think he's creating a real crisis."

"He may get a win out of this because people like to have a stable situation. So perhaps he will not be able to win the confidence of the people but win a vote based on stability."