Quebec Separatists Itching for a Win In Provincial Elections

BERNARD LANDRY, Quebec's second-most-powerful separatist politician, vows that he will not count his political chickens before the big vote coming up in Quebec.

Even though Quebec's separatist party will clean up in provincial elections that must be held by October, barring a dramatic reversal of fortune, the Parti Qucois (PQ) vice president says he is playing it cool.

``Overconfidence is our enemy,'' Mr. Landry says in a telephone interview. ``For years the polls have had us as winner. I can assure you, we will be working very hard to the last.''

But even the cucumber-cool Landry gets a bit excited. ``In past weeks it has seemed more and more affirmed,'' he says, referring to an internal party poll that shows wide-margin leads in a voting district not historically held by the PQ.

Caving in to his excitement, he predicts: ``In our fortresses [the PQ's strongest districts] it will be an unprecedented sweep of the place - from Saint-Lawrence Street in Montreal to the Atlantic Ocean - we will have everything.''

Separatists like Landry may be excused for getting a bit worked up. It has been nine years since the PQ held power, and this time independence for Quebec - the party's central goal - seems within reach. PQ leader Jacques Parizeau has promised that once elected, a clear ``yes'' or ``no'' referendum will be held shortly on provincial independence.

All that stands between a big PQ victory followed by a referendum on independence is Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson and his struggling Liberal Party. Indeed, most of the Liberals' best known figures decided to sit this election out since former Premier Robert Bourassa resigned last fall.

Mr. Johnson's bid for a third term for the Liberals will be tested by the hard bottom-line faced by nearly all incumbent politicians in North America: the state of the economy (weak) and unemployment (12 percent).

Polls late last month showed Johnson's provincial Liberal Party with 42 percent of the vote to the PQ's 48 percent. Because the Liberal vote is concentrated in Montreal, even a tie in the popular vote would result in a PQ victory in most voting districts, says Claude Gauthier of CROP, a Montreal polling firm.

The recent polls mean Johnson is less likely to call a quick election for June and more likely to hold it in August or September. That gives him time to turn popular opinion. Of late, Johnson has been talking tough with the federal government.

Johnson's new stridency, Prof. Dale Thomson says, is part of a bid to ``play the nationalist card'' to appeal to swing voters. In order to win, analysts say Johnson will need to shift the focus away from jobs and the economy to the question of independence.

``The population of Quebec doesn't want to pay the economic price of independence,'' says Professor Thomson, a political scientist at McGill University in Montreal. ``Polls consistently show that 80 percent of them, including a lot of PQ supporters, still identify with Canada.''

So far, however, most voters feel that a vote for the PQ does not necessarily mean a vote for independence, but is simply a vote for a change, pollsters say. Many say they will vote for the PQ, and later vote against independence in a referendum.

But David Cameron, a University of Toronto political scientist, says this may be delusive. Once in power, he says, the PQ will not wait for a referendum but begin immediately to cut the province's ties with Canada. The details, he says, are in a 91-page plan signed by Mr. Parizeau and entitled ``Quebec in a New World.''

Still, Quebec observers say that no matter how much momentum the PQ builds for separation with such legislation, it is unlikely to win a referendum question on independence.

``I think the PQ has a good chance of winning the next election but losing the referendum,'' says Rejean Pelletier, a political scientist at Laval University in Quebec. ``The population wants more power for Quebec, but not really separation or independence. They're just not ready for that.''

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