The Other Election

September 10, 1994

If Maryland citizens are irritated at the time and bother needed to vote in Tuesday's primary on relatively marginal issues, would they really want to be in the shoes of Quebec voters on Monday? Those voters could be deciding whether Canada survives as a nation.

Quebec voters ought to be able to decide whether the Liberal provincial government, in power nine years and now under Premier Daniel Johnson, deserves to be kept in or turned out for some rivals who would not be so different but might do a better job. We decide that in Maryland all the time.

And on that issue, the polls are clear, Quebecers are fed up and want the Liberals out. The catch is that the opposition Parti Quebecois of Jacques Parizeau is not promising just to cut the waste in spending. It is committed to a referendum within a year on whether Quebec should secede from Canada. Polls suggest that most Quebecers, who voted a decisive "no" on that question in 1980, would rather the subject went away.

As a result, they have endured a campaign in which the revolutionary outsiders ignore their own program but concentrate on the record of the incumbents, who in turn broadcast the views of the opposition rather than their own. And the opinion polls have been shifting as more voters start to think, "Wait a minute, what are we saying?"

The rest of Canada is pretending not to notice. Does federal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, himself a Quebec voter allied to Mr. Johnson, have a view whether his country should be fractured? He is trying not to let it be noticed. Most politicians in the other provinces are following suit.

Yet the barely suppressed rage against Quebec will surface immediately in the West, should the PQ come to power. And a dynamic would come into play, fraying Canadians' good will, that could make rejection of separatism in a 1995 Quebec referendum less a sure thing than now appears. The best way to reject separatism is to reject the party that would hold the referendum. But if the voters do that, they are stuck with Mr. Johnson.

Normally, Canadians are thankful to live in a dull country without the United States' crime, racial divide, wars, world responsibilities, nuclear weapons, medical care delivery system or border with Mexico. But in next week's elections, Marylanders can be thankful to live in a dull state without the awesome issues and cataclysmic repercussions riding on what Quebec voters do.

Quebec needs a loyal opposition so the voters can throw the rascals out without a revolution. Maybe next time.

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