Quebec back on the road to independence

FOR A POPULATION which, according to all the polls, will vote a separatist party into power next week, threatening the break-up of Canada, the Quebecois appear remarkably blase about their provincial elections.

In the cafes of Montreal, talk is more about the International Film Festival and the Major League baseball strike than the prospect that Jacques Parizeau and his Parti Quebecois will administer a massive defeat a week on Monday to Premier Daniel Johnson and the provincial Liberal Party, which has held power for nine years.

This is likely to happen even though Mr Parizeau, a 64- year-old economist and former finance minister, is widely disliked even within his own party.

The latest polls indicate that the Parti Quebecois will receive about 49 per cent of the vote, with about 45 per cent going to the Liberal Party. The 49 per cent is likely to translate into about 80 of the 125 seats in the Quebec national assembly, and thus control of the regional government.

Surprisingly, the same polls which predict victory for the Parti Quebecois in the provincial election also show a steady erosion of support for independence, the centrepiece of the Parti Quebecois manifesto: 60 per cent of those who say they will vote for the Parti Quebecois are not in favour of sovereignty or independence.

All the same, Mr Parizeau has said that he will consider an election victory a mandate to take steps towards making Quebec a separate state. His government will hold a referendum within 10 months, and the Parti Quebecois has promised to take no radical steps towards independence until it wins a clear victory in that referendum.

The best bet is that a referendum will fail, just as a previous one promoted by the Parti Quebecois - when last in power - failed in 1980. Meanwhile, Mr Parizeau has promised to make life difficult for the federal government. He has said he will withdraw Quebec's co-operation from a range of social and economic programmes.

The Parti Quebecois will be counting on help from the 53 separatist MPs, elected to the federal parliament from Quebec at the general election last year, to build support for separatism in Quebec by inducing over-reaction in the rest of Canada.

Despite the promise of a referendum, the Canadian business community is concerned that the uncertainty created by the election of a separatist government and the turmoil of a referendum will damage the fragile economic recovery.

A group of prominent Quebec businessmen issued a plea this week to Mr Parizeau to delay any parliamentary resolution until he receives a clear mandate for independence in a referendum.

According to a University of Montreal political scientist, Stephane Dion, the Quebecois are playing off their provincial government against the federal government in Ottawa, and reaping extra benefits for their province as a result.

'Support for the Liberals has dropped because the campaign has shown the weakness of Premier Johnson,' he said. 'Support for sovereignty has dropped because the campaign has shown the weakness of the independence option.' Montreal humourist Yvonne Deschamps put it more succinctly: 'What the Quebecois want is an independent Quebec in a strong and united Canada.'