With a Sept. 4 provincial election on the horizon, ground zero of the Quebec student movement is about to shift to Sherbrooke, the university town that is Jean Charest’s longstanding home base.
Nowhere else is the campaign fight over tuition fees likely to be as close and personal as in the premier’s own riding.
It is lining up to be the must-watch riding in the upcoming vote.
Charest is Quebec’s most seasoned campaigner, a politician who never seems more engaged than when he is out on the hustings.
This will be his fifth run as Quebec Liberal leader and his ninth bid for the Sherbrooke seat.
He has represented the riding at the federal and provincial levels for almost three decades and beat the odds on more than one occasion, starting with his first victory as a Brian Mulroney Tory in 1984.
In the 1993 federal election, Sherbrooke was one of only two ridings to return a Progressive Conservative MP to the House of Commons.
But the riding is a more level playing field than Charest’s impressive string of past victories would suggest.
It has never been a natural federalist habitat.
A majority of Charest’s constituents voted Yes in the 1995 referendum and after he left the federal scene three years later, the Bloc Québécois held the riding until it was swept up by the NDP last year.
Provincially, Sherbrooke was represented by the PQ in the National Assembly until Charest won the seat in 1998.
It is also home to a significant academic community that serves more than 40,000 students.
Few other Quebec ridings feature as high a concentration of voting-age students.
As a result, the university funding issue has more legs in Sherbrooke than in the average Liberal-held Quebec riding and feelings about the student movement are more mixed.
If a poll commissioned by a local public relations firm is to be believed, Charest has not scored points with his constituents over his spring confrontation with the student movement.
The region’s voters are split right down the middle on tuition increases, but two-thirds were unimpressed by the premier’s management of the crisis.
The poll suggests that Charest’s fight for personal re-election will be as tough as his larger battle to win a fourth governing mandate.
That is not to say the Sherbrooke campaign is lining up to be a walk in the park for the student movement.
It is not a coincidence that the suggested timing of the Quebec campaign would find most students barely settling in for a new school year.
Last spring, about one third of Sherbrooke’s students participated fully in their movement’s boycott. That does not mean that the other two-thirds don’t oppose the tuition hike, but it does beg the question of whether they are committed enough to find their way to a voting booth.
Under a new wrinkle in Quebec’s election law, a student who wants to have his or her vote counted in Sherbrooke must have a permanent address in the riding.
Looking at the big picture, the Liberals could lose Sherbrooke and still win the province. But the humiliation of Charest losing his seat would seriously undermine his moral authority.
On the other hand, if the student movement is not able to make a credible stand in a riding where it has this many boots on the ground, there will be cause to question whether its militant leadership has overplayed its hand with a set of apparently non-negotiable demands.
On election night 2007, Radio-Canada embarrassed itself when it jumped the gun and declared Charest had lost in Sherbrooke. By the time all the votes were counted, the premier had been re-elected with a 1,000-plus lead on the PQ runner-up.
Based on that experience, no network is likely to count Charest out until every vote is counted on election night — but it may take that long to find out whether Sherbrooke has once again stuck with its native son.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.