Separatists win Quebec against tide: The narrow margin of victory for the Parti Quebecois suggests that the province's enthusiasm for declaring full independence from Canada is on the wane, writes Hugh Winsor from Ottawa

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE SEPARATIST Parti Quebecois (PQ) won a comfortable parliamentary majority on Monday giving it control of the Quebec provincial government. But the drive of the party's leader, Jacques Parizeau, to persuade Quebeckers to support his plan to turn Quebec into an independent country was less successful.

Despite polls in recent weeks showing the Parti Quebecois with a clear lead over the strongly federalist provincial Liberals, the parties were tied with 46 per cent each of the vote when the final ballots were counted. The remaining votes went to the fledgeling Parti Action Democratic, made up of former Liberals who want to keep Quebec within Canada but with more powers of autonomy than it now has.

Mr Parizeau's party received far less than 50 per cent of the vote, which was the psychological level required to consider the provincial election as a big step towards independence.

The PQ is committed to holding a referendum on independence next year but the results suggest the momentum has turned against the sovereignty movement. Quebeckers indicated they wanted a change of government after nine years of Liberal rule, but they have reinforced their penchant for keeping their options open while playing off one level of government against the other.

Because of the distribution of the vote in the first-past-the-post constituency system, the PQ won 77 of the 125 seats while the Liberals retained 47 and the PAD won a single seat for their young leader, Mario Dumont.

The two major parties had the same number of votes overall, but the PQ won most of the rural, mainly French-speaking, ridings while the Liberals dominated the urban area around Montreal, where English-speaking and 'allophones' - the immigrant communities for whom neither French nor English is their first language - are concentrated.

Despite Mr Parizeau's assertions throughout the campaign that his objective was only to replace the provincial government, he indicated in his hard-nosed victory speech that he and his government would immediately try to persuade Quebeckers to switch their allegiance to independence.

The new premier is a 64-year- old economist with a doctorate from the London School of Economics who was finance minister in the first Parti Quebecois government elected in 1976. But when the former PQ leader Rene Levesque agreed to give federalism another try after losing a referendum in 1980, Mr Parizeau quit the party and the government in protest at the softening of its independentiste philosophy.

He rejoined the party, became its leader in 1988 and won party approval to return to an uncompromising separatist approach. On Monday night, he used an ice- hockey analogy to warn the rest of the country that the third period would start today.

The first period was the election to the federal parliament in Ottawa last year of a strong contingent of separatist MPs committed to defending Quebec's interests against the federal government and to promoting Quebec sovereignty.

The second period was the provincial election, and now the final period of the game begins in earnest. Mr Parizeau said he would use his majority in the Quebec National Assembly to pass what he calls a 'solemn declaration' of Quebec's desire to become independent of Canada, even though this would have little legal value and fall far short of a unilateral declaration of independence.

The next step will be a concerted campaign to demonstrate that Quebec is not getting its share of federal largesse and that the province's ability to develop its economic and cultural institutions is hampered by the Canadian federation.

Mr Parizeau has consistently claimed that Quebeckers are being short-changed, even though more dispassionate studies show that Quebec receives more in transfer payments, pensions and other social benefits than it pays to Ottawa in taxes.

The Parti Quebecois government will set up a parliamentary commission to design a proposed constitution for an independent Quebec and will try to lobby the US and Mexico for guarantees that an independent Quebec will be allowed to join the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Finally, the Parizeau government will a campaign against the federal government and refuse to participate in the reform of shared programmes. He might even try to withhold federal taxes. Mr Parizeau has a capacity for bluffing and feinting and will try to provoke an over-reaction from the rest of the country - and this might prove a catalyst for Quebeckers' resentment.

Myths of separatism, page 14

(Photograph omitted)