Montreal — Premier Ren'e L'evesque of Quebec won the debate over holding off on the separatist issue in the next provincial election. But he may have pushed himself closer to an early election that could mean political disaster for his party. At a weekend convention of the Parti Qu'eb'ecois in Montreal, two-thirds of the delegates voted to set aside the issue of ``sovereignty'' or separating from Canada from the next election platform.
The party says it will try to make a deal with the federal government on the Constitution. If that doesn't work, then separation will be resurrected as a political issue.
The party's debate comes at a time when fewer Quebeckers are interested in sovereignty, independence, or separatism under any other name. A poll released on Saturday, the day the party's crucial vote was held, shows that only 4 percent of Quebeckers are hard-line separatists. Only 4 percent want Quebec to be a totally independent country; another 15 percent want it to be almost independent, a sovereign state within a loosely federal Canada.
Support for Quebec independence was as high as 39 percent in March of 1980. It was at 30 percent in February 1983. But in last fall's federal election, Quebeckers voted massively for the Liberal Party of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
It was numbers such as those that made Premier L'evesque decide the separatist issue was dead. He realized it was political suicide to fight the next election on the independence issue and wanted to get it over with at the PQ convention.
Although L'evesque won the battle, he is left with a seriously divided party. Almost 500 delegates voted against shelving the separatism issue. They symbolically walked out of the hall twice; they may walk out of the party next.
``We are still members of the party, but how long that will last, I cannot say,'' said Dr. Camille Laurin, the leader of what is called the orthodox group, the hard-liners on the issue of independence for Quebec.
Dr. Laurin has been in the party since its formation in the late 1960s. As minister of social affairs, he was in charge of the controversial language bill that made French the official language of the province. He says he isn't ready to quit the PQ, yet. ``We don't intend to give the Parti Qu'eb'ecois to our opponents.''
The defections from the party started in the fall when Dr. Laurin and other Cabinet ministers resigned. The schism in the party almost certainly means more resignations in the coming weeks, although the hard-liners say they have given themselves a month to plan their strategy.
All of this could leave L'evesque in a tight corner. Without a majority in the National Assembly, as Quebec's legislature is called, he would be forced to call an election. As things stand now, L'evesque would probably lose a spring election to the provincial Liberal Party under former Premier Robert Bourassa, the man he defeated in 1976.
The polls had bad news for Premier L'evesque this weekend. A survey done by the French-language daily, La Presse, shows that 47 percent of Quebeckers believe he should resign. It also shows that one of L'evesque's popular young Cabinet ministers would have a better chance of beating the Liberals in the next election.
That Cabinet minister is Pierre Marc Johnson, the minister of justice. His father was once premier of Quebec and his older brother is a prominent Liberal.
Liberal leader Bourassa has dismissed results of the poll as a ``temporary phenomenon'' because of all the convention publicity.
``The decision by the PQ is one of the sneakiest acts ever undertaken by a political party,'' Bourassa told a meeting of Liberal Party faithful.
The Liberal leader is understandably upset. L'evesque's move to shed the unfashionable separatist label may help the PQ keep its hold on power in Quebec. L'evesque has also been moving the party to more conservative economic policies, following the mood of the population.
But if the hard-liners who feel they were betrayed by the abandonment of the separatist cause defect in great numbers or form a splinter party, the PQ will be in trouble in a spring election.
L'evesque says he wants an election in the fall. He may have trouble hanging on that long.