Ottawa — Premier Rene Levesque, the fiery French-Canadian nationalist who has threatened to break up Canada, appears to have achieved a remarkable political comeback and stands a good chance of being returned to office in a provincial election April 13.
Less than a year ago, in May 1980, Mr. Levesque's bid to rally his fello French-Canadians to the cause of Quebec independence was turned back in a historic referendum vote on Quebec's future.
The defeat of Mr. Levesque's proposal for a sovereign Quebec brought a sigh of relief from Canadians, who had worried about their country's future unity ever since Mr. Levesque's Parti Quebecois (PQ) came to power in Quebec City in 1976. And, with the high point of Mr. Levesque's career -- the independence vote -- a failure, the former television journalist was thought to be on his way out as premier of the province.
But, since calling a provincial election March 12, Mr. Levesque has confounded most observers and is now given a slight edge over his main rival, Quebec Liberal Party leader Claude Ryan.
"what happened?" Levesque asked on April 10. "A lot of people sort of stopped their stopwatches last May. The polarization with the referendum was inevitable and it was inevitable it would fade away," he commented.
Two opinion polls released April 11 confirmed earlier surveys giving mr. Levesque a substantial edge over the Liberals. But, be cause such samplings have traditionally overstated the PQ's support, many experts were predicting that anything could happen when the province's 4.4 million eligible voters go to the polls.
Behind Mr. Levesque's recovery lies a single stratagem -- deemphasizing his party's commitment to transform Quebec into a sovereign state by pulling free of Canada's 113-year-old federation. He has pledged not to hold another referendum if reelected.
That promise has undercut the hysteria fanned by the specter of political upheaval. This is true even such places as West End Montreal, home of many Quebec's English-speaking residents, who, along with so-called ethnic groups, account for about 20 percent of the province's 6.2 million population.
After Mr. Levesque was elected in 1976, many of these non-Francophone Quebeckers feared their rights were about to be restricted severely or that they might even be driven from the province. Now that has changed.
Ethel Gosham, a merchandiser for a major retail clothing firm, says, "We no longer have that awful apprehension we had immediately after the election [in 1976]."
With the separatist issue under wraps, Levesque has made the most of his immense personal popularity with voters. He has stressed the social-minded reforms inacted under him, promised widespread tax and financial benefits for voters, and reminded them of his record of clean government.
Mr. Levesque's resurgence hs caught the Liberals by surprise. Only a few months ago, Mr. Ryan, the former publisher of the Montreal daily Le Devoir, had seemed like a sure bet to be the next premier. His party leadership, assumed in 1978, had received a tremendous boost lst May when he led the provincial forces that defeated the Levesque side in the independence referendum.
Mr. Ryan helped the Liberal Party roll up 11 straight by-elections in the province, and his somber, priest-like mien is thought to strike a responsive cord with many voters in the predominantly Roman Catholic, conservative-minded province.
In recent weeks, Mr. Ryan has hammered at the province's economic problems and the lavishly expensive promises to voters Mr. Levesque has been making. The Parti Quebecois, says Mr. Ryan, is "mortgaging the house to pay for the groceries" and "would lead Quebec to financial ruin" if returned to office.
But Mr. Ryan, it seems, has failed to connect with one major issue that would give his campaign a focus. Some say he has erred also in trying halfway through the campaign to match Levesque's economic pledges w ith multimillion-dollar promises of his own.