- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2007

TORONTO — Quebec Premier Jean Charest, leading federalist forces against the separatist Parti Quebecois, appears headed for disappointing results in a provincial election today.

Forecasters said Mr. Charest’s ruling Liberal party may squeak through with just enough seats to form a minority government — a far cry from the thumping majority that it had anticipated when the election was called five weeks ago.

The Liberals held 72 seats in the outgoing provincial legislature, which Quebecers call the National Assembly. When it was dissolved last month, the separatist PQ held 45 seats and an upstart Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ) held four seats.

In the past four weeks of campaigning, the ADQ, led by Mario Dumont, made dramatic gains and is expected to grab 15 seats in the 125-seat legislature, positioning itself to form a coalition with the Liberals.

Some recent opinion polls showed the Liberals and Parti Quebecois in almost a dead heat, while others showed the Liberals with a six-percentage-point lead.

If the polls are anywhere near accurate, analysts said, Mr. Charest will need help from Mr. Dumont to form a governing majority. He would also have the option of trying to rule with a minority, forming alliances with other parties on each issue.

“You can predict with some certainty that there’s going to be a minority government,” political analyst Allan Gregg of the Strategic Counsel told CTV Newsnet’s Mike Duffy.

Mr. Gregg said the premier was weakened, ironically, by flagging interest among Quebecers in separating from Canada. Without a separatist threat to thunder against, Mr. Charest’s campaign came though as weak and unfocused.

That left an opening for Mr. Dumont, who shone in a midcampaign televised debate that left Mr. Charest looking ill-prepared and incompetent.

PQ leader Andre Boisclair failed to make gains despite a well-run campaign, perhaps because he was unable to overcome reports of his cocaine use while a junior minister in a former PQ government.

Mr. Dumont made strong gains among disenchanted PQ voters, quashing Mr. Charest’s hopes of making inroads in the French-speaking areas, where the separatists are strongest.

Recent polls in strongly French-speaking areas showed the ADQ leading, with the PQ in second place and the Liberals third.

The outcome will also give pause to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who reportedly is considering a fall federal election amid hopes of picking up seats from demoralized separatists in the same areas.

The Conservative federal leader recently pledged a major boost in federal financial transfers to the province in what was seen as a move to ensure a decisive Charest victory.

The gambit immediately brought an outcry from Mr. Dumont and Mr. Boisclair, who complained that the prime minister was interfering in provincial politics.

Belatedly, Mr. Charest tried to distance himself from Mr. Harper, but with limited success.

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