MONTREAL — QUEBECKERS wanted a change. And now they have it - a new separatist government whose platform lists as its first duty transforming La Belle Province into an independent nation.
But despite that bold mission statement, it is clear the separatists do not have a mandate to secede.
The 77-seat total won by the Parti Qucois - out of 125 seats in the Quebec legislature - did not reach the party's soaring expectations of 83 to 95 seats. Opinion polls reinforced that ambiguity, showing 57 percent of Quebec's 4.8 million voters want to try again to reach a constitutional compact with Canada.
And that has left Canadians in other provinces, hoping the Sept. 12 Quebec provincial election would clarify their country's future, scratching their heads.
As expected, Quebeckers voted into power the separatist Parti Qucois, led by Jacques Parizeau, a London School of Economics-trained economist, but they did not do the deed with great enthusiasm for separating from Canada.
``I voted for the PQ, of course,'' says Anne Dandurand, a Francophone writer strolling out of a Montreal polling place with her white French poodle in tow. ``But I admit I'm afraid. I know if separation comes, it will be 10 or 20 years of difficulties.''
Given such sentiments, it remains far from certain that Mr. Parizeau can muster the support he needs to win the referendum on Quebec sovereignty he has promised for 1995. Just 39 percent of all Quebeckers would vote to separate from Canada, campaign polls showed.
The PQ also failed to get more than 50 percent of the total popular vote, splitting it evenly with the defeated Liberal Party and its leader, Daniel Johnson. The Liberals, who had held power for nine years and were seeking a third mandate, were overjoyed to attain 44 seats - an outcome that allows Mr. Johnson to keep his job as party leader.
But none of these caveats appear on the surface to bother Parizeau. Having just won one race, Parizeau used his Sept. 12 acceptance speech to launch a campaign for independence.
Using a hockey analogy, Parizeau said the ``third period'' - or referendum campaign - would begin Sept. 13. The first two were winning 54 separatist seats in the House of Commons, and getting the PQ elected in Quebec.
``We will present to Quebec something once we have put all our cards on the table,'' Parizeau said. ``Once we have made them as thorough and clear as possible, we will put them before them and ask them the question that will make a people into a country.''
Parizeau will have an uphill climb, analysts say. But federalists should not take too much comfort in the anti-separatist sentiment, they say.
``We know that presently people are not ready to vote `yes,' but I don't know about eight to 12 months from now,'' says Claude Gauthier, vice president of the Montreal-based CROP polling firm. Separatist sentiment in Quebec tends to rise with Quebeckers' emotions when Quebec has been slighted publicly.
Separatist sentiment surged to about 60 percent in 1990 following the failure of the Meech Lake constitutional accord that would have recognized Quebec as a distinct society and accorded it some special powers not held by other provinces. Similarly, the 1992 failure of another pact - the Charlottetown constitutional accord - left a bitter taste in Quebeckers' mouths, though Quebec joined other provinces in rejecting it.
Parizeau also will have the opportunity now to use government resources for studies on an independent Quebec and to foment confrontation with the federal government - thereby stirring up nationalistic fervor.
``I would never take for granted that a referendum on sovereignty would be defeated, because now the PQ is the government and it controls the agenda. That is a very powerful tool.''
But because the PQ margin of victory was slim, Parizeau will have to change his strategy and timing to attain a ``yes'' vote, analysts say. First, the vote shows he needs to woo those who voted for the PQ only for a change.
``The PQ will have to be much more generous toward soft nationalists and other groups than they would have if they had 95 seats,'' says Guy Laforest, a political scientist at Laval University in Quebec City. ``The PQ cannot win if Mr. Parizeau is too dependent on the radical inner circle of the party.''
About 6 percent of Quebec voters, for example, chose Action Democratique Party candidates, but elected only the party leader, Mario Dumont, a Liberal Party dissident. Yet the young party's solo victory is significant because Parizeau will need to convince ``soft nationalists'' of the merits of separation.
The referendum will also likely be delayed to next fall rather than being held in the spring as expected. Since more people will need convincing, it will simply require more time for the PQ to lay the groundwork, which includes:
* Sending a committee around Quebec soliciting views on what will then be shaped into a draft constitution, delivered to Quebeckers prior to the referendum.
* Building confidence in government by decentralizing many powers and funds and following through on a raft of small commitments.
* Lobbying internationally, first with the United States to get assurances that an independent Quebec could become part of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Second, to convince France to lead the charge for worldwide recognition of Quebec.
* Working with the federal opposition party from Quebec, Bloc Qucois, and its leader, Lucien Bouchard, to create obvious conflicts between Quebec and Ottawa on a range of issues.
It now falls to Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Mr. Johnson to jointly fight the battle to keep Quebec in Canada.
During the campaign, Parizeau promised to try again with other referendums should the one next year fail. But many separatists call the 1995 referendum la dernier chance, the last chance.
Some analysts agree, saying a failed referendum would throw the PQ into turmoil and spell the end of the separatist drive for half a generation - something a good many Canadians pray for nightly.