MONTREAL – Jean Charest has called a Quebec election for Sept. 4 under an unpredictable backdrop as he seeks a record-tying fourth consecutive win in the province.
    
The names of other Quebec premiers who have won four straight terms _ Lomer Gouin, Louis-Alexandre Taschereau, Maurice Duplessis _ are immortalized on major arteries.
    
But there will be no end of potholes on the road to Boulevard Jean Charest.
    
The bumpy ride will be due, in part, to a new political party whose presence threatens to create an impossible-to-call series of three-way races in ridings across the province.
    
Then there are the students. In the coming days, they will hold assemblies to vote on whether they should return to class in mid-August or resume strikes that have drawn international attention for their size and stamina.
    
If the strikes carry on, will they feature the same rowdy scenes as this past spring? Will police punish those protesters with the stiff penalties set out in Charest’s Bill 78? If so, how will voters react?
    
These are some of the unknowns as the campaign begins.
    
“The street has made lots of noise,” Charest told a news conference at the Quebec City airport. “Now the silent majority will express itself… The choice is clear _ between stability and instability.”
    
Then there’s the ethics wild card: will Charest’s decision to hold a summer vote succeed at smothering the embers of public outrage? A corruption inquiry, which Charest was forced to call after two years of successive scandals in municipal and provincial politics, is on a break and only returns on Sept. 17.
    
One familiar element in this campaign is Charest’s main rival. If the polls are to be believed, she stands a good chance of becoming the first female premier of Quebec.
    
Holding a slight edge in surveys, the Parti Quebecois has an experienced leader, Pauline Marois, who is entering her second election at the helm.
    
She helped buy peace within her party, amid grumbling about her leadership, by promising a new strategy for achieving independence.
    
The PQ has promised to introduce citizen-initiated referendums, like those commonly held in the U.S. and other countries. If 850,000 Quebecers signed a petition then the province would hold a plebiscite on topics such as whether to separate from Canada.
    
It’s part of a broader package of democratic reforms being proposed by the PQ, along with the right to vote at age 16 and $100 limits on political donations.
    
The PQ is counting on such citizen engagement, and a team of high-profile candidates that includes several media personalities, to make up for Marois’ own lacklustre personal-popularity numbers.
    
She didn’t even wait for the election call to launch her campaign. She held a news conference Wednesday morning and suggested integrity and ethics _ not the student issue, and not Quebec independence _ should be the key issue.
    
“The most urgent issue here is replacing the tired and corrupt Liberal government of Jean Charest,” Marois said.
    
“Today, we’re not voting for or against a referendum. We’re voting for or against a government. The day there’s a referendum _ and we’ll decide when that day arrives, I’m keeping the schedule open _ there will be no surprises and citizens can make their choice.”
    
While independence from Canada isn’t a centrepiece of the PQ campaign, Marois did signal her intention to use a Harper government that is unpopular in Quebec as her own personal political prop.
    
“We want Quebec to stand tall against the Canada of Stephen Harper,” she said. She argued that the Harper Tories work against the province’s best interests and are harming it. “Rather than being a distinct province, we would prefer that Quebec become a normal country.”
    
In Ottawa, federal parties are mainly avoiding comment on the campaign. Notable exceptions are the Bloc Quebecois, whose few remaining MPs will campaign for the PQ, and Liberal MP Justin Trudeau who will help out a Liberal ally in Montreal.
    
This election holds untold potential repercussions for Canadian politics. If the PQ wins, a decade of relative calm on the national unity front could be over in five weeks.
    
Charest will spend the campaign reminding voters of that.
    
Most Quebecers oppose a referendum and Charest will stress that electing the PQ means constant fights with Ottawa and the permanent pursuit of a plebiscite on independence.
    
He’ll also remind voters of other things they might dislike about his chief opponent. For starters, there’s the red square that Marois has suddenly stopped wearing on her lapel.
    
The Liberal premier has repeatedly mentioned the fact that his rival took to supporting the student strikes, even wearing its iconic red symbol, before polls made it clear that public opinion was against her.
    
He noted that the PQ has even recruited a protest leader, Leo Bureau-Blouin, as one of its candidates.
    
“Pauline Marois is proposing a government that abdicates its responsibilities before the street and abdicates its responsibility to lead,” Charest said.
   
“Pauline Marois suggests folding, giving them whatever they want.”
    
The election will be a novelty in Quebec, on several fronts.
    
The emergence of a new political force, the non-separatist-non-federalist Coalition Avenir Quebec (Coalition for Quebec’s Future), risks knocking the debate from the familiar terrain of the national question toward new questions about the role and size of government.
    
That discussion has grown with the emergence of the tuition dispute _ the most intense left-versus-right debate Quebec has experienced in years, perhaps even decades.
    
The Charest Liberals have seized on the theme as a potential winner. It may have provided them with an improved chance at re-election.
    
Until then, a record-tying fourth straight term seemed unthinkable. The feat has only been achieved by three Quebec premiers and only Duplessis, with five wins over the course of his career, had ever won more elections in total.
    
It would have been an especially improbable achievement for Charest, given that he has spent much of his nine-year career as premier in the doldrums of deep unpopularity.
    
The premier was enjoying a rare thaw in opinion polls around the time of his 2008 election win, as the province’s economy fared relatively well during the economic crisis. Dating back to his first term, starting in 2003, and through his minority government win in 2007, he’d rarely had it so good with voters.
    
And then the scandals started.
    
In 2009, a steady drip of reports about corruption in the construction industry _ involving municipal politicians, Mafia ties and cost overruns on public projects _ led to demands for a public inquiry.
    
But Charest resisted.
    
In the meantime, there were reports of contracting irregularities. There were accusations that Quebec government benefits _ for daycare spaces, public works, even judgeships _ went to friends of Charest’s Liberal party.
    
One scandal-plagued minister was forced to quit, and he now faces criminal charges, over allegations that he had a personal credit card supplied by a company that received government contracts.
    
Still, Charest fended off calls for an inquiry.
    
He finally cracked, after two years. Charest called an inquiry after a sensational report from an ex-Montreal police chief alleged rampant corruption in the construction industry, and unsavoury ties to political parties and organized crime.
    
That inquiry has just begun. There have also been numerous arrests in connection with municipal contracts, and some of the people charged have close ties to provincial politics.
    
Just as things appeared to be settling down on the scandal front, another political crisis rocked the province this spring.
    
In the space of several weeks, a dispute with student groups over $325-a-year-tuition hikes mushroomed into social unrest that made news in dozens of countries and inspired smaller protests in different Canadian cities and abroad.
    
The premier had strong public support for the tuition increases, according to multiple polls. But he appeared to stoke the flames of opposition when he passed a special law that set limits on protests.
    
Even the United Nations human-rights body has criticized his Bill 78, which sets out stiff penalties for protesters who block schools or who fail to provide police with their itinerary eights hours in advance. The bill has been mostly ignored so far.
    
Upon its adoption, the protests became bigger and broader.
    
The crowds suddenly included families with pre-schoolers and senior citizens, all of them banging away at kitchenware on street corners in a festive atmosphere far removed from the window-smashing riots of previous weeks.
    
Those events prompted the government to recalibrate.
    
Charest brought back a steady old hand, a former chief of staff who had run his office when he was at his most popular in 2008. Daniel Gagnier, a top mining executive and civil servant in different federal and provincial governments, returned from political retirement.
    
The students were contacted for another attempt at negotiation. Charest even met the student leaders in late May _ his first face-to-face encounter with them after more than 100 days of unrest.
    
But the government refused to seriously budge on its tuition hikes, aside from offering larger loans and bursaries and tinkering with some of the specifics of the fee increase. The students, on the other hand, insisted on bigger concessions.
    
Apparently, according to the students at the meeting, government representatives called such a climbdown a political impossibility.
    
So the talks collapsed two months ago.
    
That set the stage for an election in which the central issue is tuition fees, and a new debate in Quebec on the role and size of government.
    
The opposition will likely seek to focus on the corruption issue _ even comparing, for example, Charest’s toughness with the students to his alleged softness on organized crime.
    
So what would Charest like to talk about?
    
Before the student unrest, there was Charest’s Plan Nord. The premier spent the last half of his mandate positioning his northern-development plan as a political legacy, with its blueprint for new roads and mining projects and large protected areas.
    
After nearly three decades in politics, Charest is clearly at the stage in his career where discussions about his legacy are only natural and rumours of his retirement persistent.
    
Charest worked briefly as a lawyer before he was elected federally, at age 26, under the Brian Mulroney Tory tidal wave in 1984. Sept. 4 is a special date for Charest _ it was on that day in 1984 that he was first elected to the House of Commons.
    
Two years later, he became the youngest cabinet minister in Canadian history.
    
He eventually became leader of the old Progressive Conservative party but succumbed to intense pressure _ from a flood of letter-writers across Canada, newspaper editorials, and other politicians’ pleas _ for him to leave federal politics in 1998.
    
The search was on for an anti-separatist saviour at the time; the youthful, smooth-speaking Charest fit the bill as the most plausible candidate to take on the wildly popular Lucien Bouchard.
    
Charest lost his first provincial election, in 1998. But with Bouchard gone in 2003, Charest staged an improbable come-from-behind campaign in which he rallied to defeat the Parti Quebecois. He nearly lost power in 2007, and clung on to a slim majority government, before again bouncing back with a majority in 2008.
    
If he manages yet another comeback, against all odds and expectations, it would be one for the history books.