Poll setback for Quebec's separatists keep hold of Quebec

A FURTHER period of constitutional uncertainty and possible confrontation was ushered in for all Canadians yesterday after the separatist Parti Quebecois was re-elected to govern the province of Quebec.

The victory was less convincing than many had expected. While the Parti Quebecois, led by Loucien Bouchard, maintained a powerful majority in the share of seats in the provincial assembly, it came slightly behind the opposition Liberal Party in the popular vote.

The mixed outcome means that Mr Bouchard is unlikely to proceed quickly to a snap referendum on the secession of Quebec from Canada. Had he achieved a landslide win, a new referendum - the last one, in 1995, ended with the separatists losing by a minuscule margin - could have come within months.

With all the ballots counted after Monday's election, the Parti Quebecois won 75 of the assembly seats against 48 taken by the Liberal Party, headed by Jean Charest. But in the popular vote, the Liberals did much better than most polls had forecast, registering 43.62 per cent, just ahead of 42.94 for Mr Bouchard's party.

Mr Bouchard remains committed to achieving independence for Quebec and technically has the mandate to call a referendum at any time during the new five-year term of his government. Throughout the campaign, he pledged to seek a referendum only when he was sure of victory.

Mr Bouchard told his supporters: "We will still assemble the winning conditions necessary for the sovereignty of Quebec. Our first priority is to advance Quebec and to push it further towards its destiny."

In the federal capital of Ottawa, the Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, warned that he will be ready to fight any new attempt to gain independence by Mr Bouchard.

"When the time comes to defend Canada, we will be there every step of the way," he said.

Battle will be joined early when the provinces attempt in the new year to conclude a "social union" pact with Ottawa. The proposed arrangement, championed by Mr Bouchard, is designed to curtail federal government's ability to determine social spending in the provinces. Instead, the provinces would take the federal cash but spend it as they pleased.

Regarded in Ottawa as yet one more bid by the provinces further to devolve powers from central government, the social union negotiations are certain to be fraught. If the proposed social pact falls apart, it may give Mr Bouchard the perfect opportunity once more to stir up Quebec nationalism.

Monday's Quebec results are being read as a sign that the fervour for separation has waned since 1995. Polls taken during the campaign indicated that as many of 70 per cent of Quebecers were opposed to the holding of another referendum on the subject.

In his concession speech, Mr Charest said: "The results tonight reflect the fact that the people of Quebec and all the people of Canada want the country of ours to work and be a success."

One surprise of the election was the 11.8 per cent showing for the splinter Action Democratique, led by 28-year-old Mario Dumont. His party, which supports a stronger Quebec but not outright separation, drained votes from both the other parties but won only one seat in the assembly.