MONTREAL — Beleaguered Quebec Premier Jean Charest called snap elections Wednesday for September 4 as separatists eye a possible return to power in Canada's mostly French-speaking province.
The elections come against the backdrop of social unrest in Quebec, where students since February have challenged government plans to hike university fees, resulting in violent street protests and hundreds of arrests.
Labor groups and other opponents of the Quebec Liberal Party have joined forces with the students at times to pile more pressure on Charest, a three-term premier also facing a growing corruption scandal.
Observers note that the election timing allows the Liberals to avoid possible damaging revelations when a commission of inquiry on alleged corruption in the construction industry resumes hearings mid-September.
"The social unrest of recent months hurt many Quebecers. The street made a lot of noise. Now it's Quebecers' turn to speak up," Charest told a press conference in Quebec City.
"The September 4 election will be unlike any others.... We must decide what kind of society we wish to live in."
Charest, an ardent federalist, has been in power since 2003, and received his third mandate in late 2008. Only one other Quebec premier, Maurice Duplessis, has previously won more than two terms in office.
But Charest's Liberals face a stiff challenge from the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ). An upstart third party, the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), could also trigger tight three-way races in several electoral districts.
A Leger Marketing poll showed the PQ slightly ahead out of the gate, with the support of 33 percent of 1,648 respondents, while 31 percent said they would back Charest's party in its bid for a fourth mandate.
The CAQ, led by former PQ minister and airline founder Francois Legault, trailed behind the two historically dominant parties with 21 percent support.
Charest, who is more conservative than his party, appears ready to fight his detractors on his economic record, including a plan to develop the north's rich resources.
This week, he adopted a mantle of economic nationalism when saying he would protect Quebec-based home improvement company Rona from a hostile takeover bid by US-based Lowe's.
"My record is not perfect," the premier conceded, while stressing it was one that many heads of state would envy.
"And Quebec is doing better economically under a Liberal government in times of economic and financial crisis than it has under Parti Quebecois governments in times of global growth," he said.
The death of Duplessis in 1959 ushered in a period of intense changes in the province and the first stirrings of nationalistic Quebec sentiment that persists today.
Quebec twice rejected independence from the rest of Canada in referendums in 1980 and 1995, but only by a narrow margin the last time.
Charest this week slammed the PQ for planning, if it wins the election, to try to wrest new powers from the federal government in Ottawa and use any failure to bolster its separatist agenda.
"What is essentially their strategy? Cultivate fights with Ottawa and the rest of Canada to promote a referendum," Charest told reporters.
He also sought to lump the CAQ in with the PQ and present his Liberals as the only federalist party on the ballot by noting that, even if the CAQ has attracted disenchanted federalists, its leader is a hardcore separatist.
"I challenge anyone to find Legault saying 'I'm a federalist,'" Charest said. "I don't think that will happen, he is a sovereignist."
On the eve of the election call, PQ leader Pauline Marois hailed the four bronze medals won by Quebec athletes at the London Olympics so far as proof that an independent state would be a success.
She called the medal haul "another example of how Quebec could certainly shine among the brightest."
"As an independent country, we could continue to win our medals, I'm convinced of that," Marois added.
Since February, hundreds of Quebec protesters have been arrested and clashes have erupted sporadically as more than 165,000 students have refused to attend class and tens of thousands have taken part in regular demonstrations.
The students are calling for the government to annul a decision to increase fees in the province by $1,708 (or 82 percent) over the next seven years, closer to the national average.
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