Strange as it seems, the Quebec election campaign may yet swing in Jean Charest's direction - testimony to the Quebec premier's wily combativeness and to the confusion of his rivals.
It would be strange because Charest has been in power nine years, more than enough time to irritate everyone from Quebec students to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and to find his shoes soiled by scandal.
But here is his rejoinder: Everyone has mud, or worse, on his or her boots. This tactic doesn't heighten general regard for politicians - and it feeds the unfair stereotype that Quebec is especially corrupt - but it just might work.
Charest has shamelessly, but effectively, highlighted a six-year-old report describing illegal fundraising schemes by the Parti QuÃ©bÃ©cois from 1994 to 2003, a reminder that no party is pure. While PQ leader Pauline Marois makes unfounded "insinuations" about his government, Charest fumes, there is "documented evidence" of PQ wrongdoing.
He took the same approach with Coalition Avenir QuÃ©bec leader Françis Legault in one of last week's televised shouting matches.
When Legault played the corruption card - Liberal donors who got lucrative permits for daycare spaces; apparently spontaneous "individual" donations from multiple employees of Quebec's well-connected engineering firms; a former minister, Tony Tomassi, facing charges for using a credit card supplied by a company with government contracts - Charest reached into the past again.
What about CAQ's star recruit, former Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau, who, it is alleged, vastly under-reported the amount of money his failed mayoral campaign raised in 1998? Duchesneau rejects the charge, but questions linger.
Charest has also benefited from the unpopular policies and unforced errors of his chief rival. No one wants another referendum (apart from PQ militants) which puts Marois in an awkward position.
So she waffles. There will be no referendum unless the Quebec people, in all regions, want one and, even then, it will be only "consultative," she clarifies. She won't name a date. She wants independence "tomorrow," she says, but knows she has to make the sale.
On other contentious policies - notably, insisting all candidates for public office in Quebec have a knowledge of French - she backpedals. She was forced to concede she doesn't mean "all" Quebecers; non-francophones now living in Quebec will be exempt.
Marois is hardly out of line for insisting municipal candidates and others, even in Anglo areas, speak the official language of the province. But tying this requirement to her famous citizenship charter, rather than leaving it to electors to determine, smacks of intolerance.
More egregious is her charter of secularism, which would ban "conspicuous" expressions of religious identity - hijabs, yarmulkes, turbans - from provincial offices and schools, while exempting crucifixes for "heritage" reasons. This policy is either illconsidered, or craven; whatever, it is unworthy of a democratic party.
Marois describes herself as a woman of conviction in contrast to sovereigntist traitor Legault and federalist lackey Charest. But she communicates the bitter impatience that comes with fighting losing battles for too long. And the more the media, and her rivals, focus on what many voters consider an outdated or marginal issue, the less certain her chances.
Meanwhile, Charest's other rival - former PQ minister and millionaire businessman Legault - is looking confused. He is neither federalist nor sovereigntist, he insists, but a nationalist in the Jean Lesage mould. Yet he sounds as belligerent as Lucien Bouchard at his most self-righteous.
He will defend "the Quebec nation" against Ottawa's predations, he says, accusing Charest of being "federalist at any price." Has he ever met Harper, much less negotiated with him?
Then there is Legault's jibe at Marois: "The worst thing that could happen is that we lose the next referendum." Why? Because it removes the knife Legault plans to hold to Ottawa's throat?
Legault's contradictory economic vision is equally unsettling. He chides Charest for creating only part-time jobs, yet vows to eliminate at least 4,000 well-paying positions at HydroQuebec and 7,000 in the public service, especially in education. That will help the economy?
Legault says he is centre-right, but he would actively intervene in the economy, forcing Quebec's large pension fund to help Quebec enterprises faced with foreign takeovers. He would slash personal taxes by $1.8 billion over five years; sure he would.
He sounds alternately negative - comparing Quebec youth unfavourably to supposedly workaholic Asian kids - and prone to magic thinking. He looks unready to govern.
All of which leaves Charest - weary, exasperated and unloved - daring to hope again.
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