United Canada hangs in the balance Secession: Quebecers go to polls tomorrow to vote on a premier, but the election is lTC really about separation of the French-speaking province.

November 29, 1998|By Myron Beckenstein

Canadian elections of recent years have been compelling because so much has been hanging in the balance - the continued existence of our northern neighbor as a united country. It is hanging in the balance again, as the people of Quebec go to the polls tomorrow.

In 1980 and again in 1995, Quebec separatists pushed for referendums on whether the mostly French-speaking province - with 25 percent of the country's population - should secede from mostly English-speaking Canada.

Both times the separatists lost, the last time barely. Premier Lucien Bouchard has promised to call another referendum on secession if "winning conditions" - low unemployment, economic growth and healthy government finances - exist. Going further, his Parti Quebecois said last summer he must hold such a vote.

But, before he can do that, he has to win tomorrow's election.

Under the Canadian parliamentary system, Bouchard has some leeway as to when to call the referendum. And while his term as premier need not end until next fall, he set the election for tomorrow, apparently believing his chances appear good.

Voter surveys say he might be right. The main opposition, the Liberals, held a lead of about five points before the campaign was announced late last month. But the separatist PQ has moved slightly ahead, though the two parties are in a statistical dead heat.

Even if the Liberals, who want Quebec to move beyond the separatist talk that has dominated Canadian politics, were to end up marginally ahead when all the votes are counted, that might not be enough.

That's because the pollsters tabulate numbers from the whole province, while the voters cast ballots only for the parliament candidates from their districts. In vote totals, huge majorities in some districts can mask narrow losses in other districts. For example, in the last election, in 1994, the PQ beat the Liberals by only three-tenths of a point - 44.7 percent to 44.4 - but won 77 seats to the Liberals' 44.

Analysts say that for the Liberals to come out on top tomorrow, they must beat the PQ by four points in the overall vote.

Considered key are some two dozen districts mostly clustered from Montreal to just north of Quebec City in which about 1,500 votes made the difference in 1994. The PQ won 16 districts, the Liberals eight. Two of the districts were won by fewer than 65 votes.

Bouchard was not leading the PQ in the last election. The party chief then was Jacques Parizeau, a strong but sometimes bumbling Francophile. When the 1995 referendum campaign was faltering, the charismatic Bouchard was called in to bail out Parizeau. He did so well that the referendum fell only a few thousand votes of passage. Parizeau stepped aside, and Bouchard took over as premier of Quebec. (In a reversal, Bouchard has recently called on Parizeau for help in the campaign.)

Bouchard, 59, who bounced among several political parties before coming to rest with the PQ, is married to an American who isn't enthusiastic for the separatist cause. But this doesn't effect Bouchard's passion or his effectiveness.

Leading the Liberals is Jean Charest, 40. Considered the only person in Canada with a chance of beating Bouchard, Charest responded to a national appeal in March by resigning as leader of the national Conservative party and forsaking national politics to become Liberal leader in Quebec provincial politics.

The anti-separatist poll numbers jumped at first, but the enthusiasm has since faded. Quebecers don't like some of the Conservative figures Charest brought with him.

Then there were the ill-timed, ill-advised comments by Jean Chretien, prime minister of Canada and leader of the national Liberal party. (In Canadian politics, national and provincial parties might share the same name but do not necessarily share values or feel loyal to each other.)

With Charest trying to stake out a position of change through means other than a referendum, Chretien, days before the election call was expected, said nothing was left to give Quebec. All its demands that could be met, Chretien said, had been met.

Being cut off at the knees left Charest in a bad position. He didn't do much to improve his situation. "The first week of his campaign could have been scripted by his opposition," said Guy LaForest, a political scientist at Laval University.

Great expectations

"People expected a lot of him that he didn't live up to," said analyst Andre Picard of the Globe and Mail in Toronto. "He ran his campaign badly."

French-speakers are a large majority in some of Quebec's 125 districts, but being Francophone does not necessarily translate into supporting the PQ or wanting independence. In fact, polls show a solid majority are opposed to holding another referendum, with the greatest support for one among younger voters.

The non-Francophone base is shrinking, as the never-ending debate and the fear of what could happen to, and in, an independent Quebec have led many English speakers to leave the province.

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