GATINEAU, Quebec (AP) — Saying it is time for Quebec's "silent majority" to express itself in a year marked by massive and sometimes violent student protests, Premier Jean Charest announced Wednesday his province would head to the polls in early September.
Charest will be seeking a fourth mandate as premier of the French-speaking province in the Sept. 4 election. Polls have shown his party closely trailing the opposition, separatist Parti Quebecois. Quebec does not have set election dates.
Charest said Quebec's people don't recognize themselves in the violent acts perpetrated by the demonstrators, which he said caused economic and social turbulence. More than 2,500 people have been arrested since protests began over rising tuition fees in February in what became Canada's most sustained protests ever.
Charest also criticized the PQ's embrace of the protest movement.
Students also have protested an emergency law put in place to limit the demonstrations. The conflict caused considerable upheaval in the province known for having more contentious protests than elsewhere in Canada.
"The street has made a lot of noise. It's now time for Quebecers to talk," Charest said standing in front of his campaign bus at the Quebec City airport surrounded by his candidates. "We must decide the type of society we want to live in."
The students have slowed down their protest movement over the summer but said they would be active during the election to target districts where Liberal politicians will be seeking re-election.
Students have said their movement wasn't tied to any particular political party. But in the days leading up to the election announcement, one former student leader said he would represent the Parti Quebecois in a district north of Montreal.
Charest said this was a clear indication of the PQ's ties with the student movement. PQ leader Pauline Marois for some time wore the red square of the student movement during sessions of Quebec's legislature.
Polls show the Quebecois were more likely to side with the government on the need for a tuition hike, but they were divided on the emergency law, which caused the protest movement to swell beyond its student base.
Politicians and rights groups have said the legislation restricts the right to demonstrate.
Quebec's average undergraduate tuition — $2,519 a year — is the lowest in Canada, and the hike — $254 per year over seven years — is tiny by U.S. standards. But many Quebecois compare themselves to European countries, where higher education is mostly free, rather than the U.S.
George Saad, a taxi driver, said he felt Charest and his government made numerous concessions during discussions with the students and should be given another chance.
"It made many attempts to get closer to the students but they didn't give an inch," he said.
Charest has also criticized the PQ for choosing candidates who would seek a referendum to separate the province from the rest of Canada. Voters narrowly rejected independence in two previous referendums in 1980 and 1995.
Critics say the Liberals are calling the election now to avoid any embarrassment from an ongoing corruption inquiry into the province's construction industry, which is expected to resume after a summer break and has been largely overshadowed by the student protests.
Charest was first elected premier in 2003. He was re-elected in 2007 leading the province's first minority government in over a century before regaining his majority in a vote the following year.