MONTREAL -- Quebecers should prepare to head to the polls just after Labour Day as Premier Jean Charest seeks a rare fourth consecutive term.

Tuesday, Sept. 4 is the likely date of a provincial election, according to a Quebec cabinet minister.

While there has been ample speculation about an imminent election, the comments Thursday marked the first time a member of the government has spoken so explicitly about one.

Municipal Affairs Minister Laurent Lessard told a Quebec radio network that he expects the premier to call an election campaign next week.

"It's very probable, very probable," he told Infos Reseau des Appalaches.

"Everything's getting lined up -- we're seeing lots of announcements of candidacies everywhere...

"I think the premier is going to call elections for a vote on Sept. 4."

Charest, who was re-elected in December 2008, is already only the first Quebec premier in a half-century to have won three straight terms.

However, he's struggling in the polls and faces a tough three-way election fight.

The premier clearly appeared surprised at having been scooped -- by a full week -- on his own election call.

Charest was informed of the comments by a journalist, during a press conference during a premiers' summit in Halifax.

As a reporter started asking about an imminent election, Charest smiled. That smile swiftly disappeared as the specifics of Lessard's comments were relayed to him.

The first words out of Charest's mouth were: "Did he say that?"

Charest then broke into a smile again and added: "I haven't spoken to Mr. Lessard lately -- but it's a suggestion he's making, and we'll take it into account." He elaborated in English later, saying, "There will be an election campaign in Quebec. It will happen within the next few months."

There have been numerous hints recently of an impending election. At the beginning of June, Charest himself suggested that the ongoing student unrest could ultimately be settled by voters.

If he calls a vote next week the campaign will take place just as striking students are debating whether to return to school or to continue enforcing their walkouts. About one-third of Quebec post-secondary students have yet to complete their spring session.

Such a move could ensure that the issue remains top of mind as Quebecers head to vote. Several polls have suggested Quebecers support the government's tuition hikes.

However, an election based on the student issue is no slam-dunk for Charest, either. Polls suggest Quebecers are divided over his handling of a months-long dispute that has made international headlines.

There are numerous unpredictable variables in the conflict; the latest wildcard is a demand from teachers' unions for better work conditions if they are to try cramming a semester-and-a-half into just over three calendar months.

It is therefore not only unknown whether schools will be blocked in mid-August when classes are supposed to resume -- it's also unclear, at this point, who might wind up causing any such shutdown.

A Sept. 4 election holds another major implication: it means Quebecers would vote before an ongoing corruption inquiry resumes in mid-September.

Currently on its summer break, the inquiry heard a star witness this spring expressing doubts about the government's interest in tackling corruption.

Charest will likely cast the main election issue as prosperity.

He will pit his own economic-development plans against the allegedly unstable climate fuelled by his main opponent, the PQ, which wants Quebec independence and has previously aligned itself with the student protesters.

The PQ has in fact named one of the protest leaders as a candidate, in a Montreal-area swing riding.

However, the party has recently backed away from wearing the red square that symbolizes the protest movement and it appears to be gearing up for a campaign on other issues.

The PQ has ramped up its criticism of perceived flaws in Charest's northern-development plan, which it accuses of selling the province's natural resources at bargain-basement rates.

Another unknown election variable is the new Coalition For Quebec's Future.

The fledgling party, which bills itself as neither federalist nor separatist, had been leading polls several months ago but its fortunes have waned and it's unclear what role it might play in three-way races.

The potential for wild three-way splits exists in numerous ridings.

A partisan survey, provided to The Canadian Press, suggests that while Charest's Liberals have a one percentage point lead in overall support they clearly trail the Parti Quebecois and the Coalition For Quebec's Future among francophone voters who control most ridings.

The partisan poll places Charest's Liberals at 31 per cent support, with the PQ at 30 per cent and the Coalition at 24 per cent. However, among francophones, the Liberals are six percentage points behind the Coalition and 14 points behind the PQ.

The poll of 1,000 Quebecers was conducted online between July 20 and 25 by the CROP firm for the Coalition party and, like other online polls, it does not have a margin of error. It shows the Coalition at a higher support level than polls from a rival firm.