Nationalisms feed on the protest vote, but weaken with any prospect of success. Then fear of the unknown takes over, instilling thoughtful moderation. Quebec is the latest case in point.
When Jacques Parizeau's Parti Quebecois was elected to five years of power in the Canadian province last September, the new premier promised a referendum this year on sovereignty. He counted on enthusiasm and momentum to carry it, and let federal Canada worry about the legalities. He said a yes vote would bind his provincial parliament to bring about independence. And never mind that a similar referendum lost, 60-40 percent, only 15 years ago.
Now Mr. Parizeau has ruled out a spring or summer vote and suggested one for autumn. He is not, as yet, backing out but the clear preference is for later rather than sooner. Small wonder. The Quebecer prime minister of Canada, Jean Chretien, is winning personal admiration if not economic success. The polls suggest a 1995 referendum would give the same results as in 1980. That would humiliate its sponsors. Why hold it?
That logic influences Mr. Parizeau's ally and rival, Lucien Bouchard, who heads the Bloc Quebecois, the official opposition in the federal parliament. Mr. Bouchard has made clear his distaste for a losing referendum. He wants the wording to call for economic association with Canada on the European Union model, to soften the blow. Mr. Parizeau is more of an all-or-nothing guy. Mr. Bouchard is not wedded to a vote this year. Having survived a harrowing onslaught of flesh-eating bacteria with a leg amputation last December, he is a more sympathetic and popular figure with Quebecers.
Quebec sovereignty is an understandable but bad idea whose time has passed. Postponing the vote keeps hopes alive -- hopes that Mr. Chretien's government or economic collapse would alienate more people.
But most Quebecers are willing to vote for national independence only if guaranteed they would lose. Their fear of victory -- a victory that would make them poorer and weaker -- is now the strongest glue holding Canada together, since most English-speaking politicians have quit trying.