Canadian polls show separatist vote plunging

Support for the Bloc Quebecois, the Quebec separatist party that runs for seats in the national parliament, is falling so fast that the head of the Quebec provincial government, Premier Lucien Bouchard, has been forced to step back into federal politics in an attempt to rescue it.

What had been a plodding campaign leading to a vote on 2 June has suddenly caught fire following televised leaders' debates in English and French and the release of several polls which suggest that a fundamental realignment is under way in Quebec.

The surprise beneficiary is Conservative Party Leader Jean Charest, who has laboured for the past three-and-a-half years in the House of Commons with one other Member of Parliament in his caucus, too few to be recognized as an official party.

After a commanding performance in television debates and a series of stumbles by Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe, it appears that many who want Quebec to have a more independent status within Canada have decided that Mr Charest best represents their aspirations.

This group, which had supported the Conservatives in the past, voted massively in the 1993 election for the Bloc Quebecois because they wanted a bargaining chip to extract a distinct status for Quebec within the federation.

Until midway through the current election campaign, it appeared the Bloc Quebecois was about to pull off a repeat of the 1993 results in Quebec, despite the lacklustre performance of Mr Duceppe. But when weekend polls showed support for the Bloc Quebecois to be in free fall, the Quebec premier decided to become involved.

As he said in his first public appearance on Monday eve- ning, he needs a strong Bloc in Ottawa to keep the federal government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien off balance.

A dramatic reversal for the Bloc would make it seem that the Quebec sovereignty movement was losing momentum and that could have implications for the next referendum on independence, which Mr Bouchard is planning to hold next year.

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