Canada really needs saving Charest switch: One politician, indispensable in two settings, abandons Ottawa for Quebec.

March 29, 1998

THE NEED for Jean Charest to quit leading the federal Conservatives in Canada's parliament to join the provincial Liberals in Quebec's National Assembly, illustrates Canada's fragility.

Imagine that Sen. Trent Lott or Rep. Newt Gingrich quit leading Republicans in Congress to run for governor of Texas as a Democrat and was the only hope of preventing the state's secession. That is roughly what Mr. Charest is doing.

Though only 39, he was already engaged in saving Canada. After the formerly ruling Conservatives were virtually wiped out of the federal parliament in 1993, leaving the Liberals in power and the opposition split between parties that would tear the country apart, the young former cabinet minister took over and began the Conservatives' revival. It is not complete.

But in Quebec, the Parti Quebecois of the charismatic Premier Lucien Bouchard was heading for another victory in the next year. Mr. Bouchard vows to hold another referendum on independence. The 1980 referendum went 60-40 against separatism but the 1995 vote lost by a margin of less than 1 percent, thanks to vigorous campaigning against it by Mr. Charest.

Now Mr. Charest seeks to rescue the provincial branch of his federal adversary's party in hopes of beating separatists decisively. Americans who want Canada to remain the neighbor they cherish should wish him well. But the quest Mr. Charest is abandoning, to restore credible two-party politics at the federal level, is also essential and not accomplished.

As for Quebec politics, Mr. Bouchard will denounce Mr. Charest as a changeling for having served as a Conservative federal cabinet minister. That won't resonate. So did Mr. Bouchard before him.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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