Levesque victory puts pressure on Trudeau

Quebec Premier Rene Levesque, whose hallmark has been the assertion of French Canadian nationalism, won a stunning vote of confidence from provincial voters in the April 13 election.

Mr. Levesque, whose goal of provincial independence was struck down by Quebec voters less than a year ago, capped a remarkable political comeback by being returned to office with an overwhelming majority.

His Parti Quebecois won 80 of the 122 seats in the Quebec provincial legislature, with the Liberal Party, led by Claude Ryan, taking 42.

The result threw the weight of Quebec's voters squarely behind Mr. Levesque's determination to win as much power as possible for the French-speaking minority in Canada. As such, it promised more -- rather than less -- tension between Canada's embattled provinces and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in the ongoing struggle over federal-provincial rights.

The new four-year term, Mr. Levesque said April 13, will give his government ample opportunity to "defend and protect the basic interests of Quebec" in Canada's federal system.

"We are no longer an accident of history," the jubilant former television and radio journalist added, suggesting that the French-Canadian nationalism espoused by his party, once thought an aberration in Canadian politics, had now attained legitimacy among Quebec's 6.2 million people.

But this development held considerably less fear for Canadians than did Mr. Levesque's rise to power in 1976, when his Quebec-first philosophy hinged on a pledge to break up Canada by leading the province out of the country's federal system.

To the great relief of most of the nation, that drive faltered last May, when by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent, the provincial electorate rejected a proposal that would have put Quebec on the road to sovereignty.

Mr. Levesque's means of rebounding from that blow --decision to play down the controversial separatist goal. Thus, during the last four weeks of campaigning, he repeatedly pledged not to hold another referendum vote on the sovereignty issue if reelected.

The success of this move surpassed even the expectations of Mr. Levesque himself, who had predicted his party would win only 73 or 74 seats in the election.

With Quebeckers' fears of nationalist-inspired upheaval put to rest, Mr. Levesque's widespread personal popularity in the province asserted itself. If anything, this appeal was only heightened by the contrast with Mr. Ryan, a scholarly, austere, former publisher who often left audiences unmoved.

The Parti Quebecois' record of clean government in a province often plagued by corruption in high places also played a role in the victory. So too did voter appreciation of Mr. Levesque's actions since 1976 to protect the French language, stop buy-outs of farm land, step up protection of workers and consumers, and bring about other reforms.

But the election outcome depended largely on the Parti Quebecois' even distribution of support across the province. Mr. Levesque's candidates captured their huge majority with 49 percent of the popular vote. The Liberal Party took far fewer seats with 46 percent of the vote, having piled up unnecessarily large majorities in a few ridings (electoral districts) while losing narrowly in many others.

Afterwards Mr. Ryan called for electoral reforms to redress this phenomenon. He also said Quebeckers could expect another four years "on the tightrope of uncertainty and confrontation."

"We particularly don't want the next mandate abused by promises of sovereignty-association [Levesque's independence plan], as so often happened during the first mandate of the Parti Quebecois," Mr. Ryan remarked.

Prime Minister Trudeau, a longtime foe of Mr. Levesque, refused to comment immediately on the election result. But former prime minister and Progressive Conservative opposition leader Joe Clark said, "The positive side of this result tonight is there is a government in Quebec with a clear mandate. It is a mandate to work within the federal system."

As champion of the aspirations of French Canadians, who have felt disadvantaged culturally and economically throughout much of Canada's history, Mr. Levesque can be expected to press for increased autonomy for his province. This will include measures to protect the province's French heritage and expand control of Quebec's economy.

Both aims put Mr. Levesque on a continuing collision course with Mr. Trudeau, who argues that giving further rights to the already-powerful provinces hastens Canada's Balkanization.

This debate is now centered around the writing of a new constitution for Canada. Mr. Levesque is one of eight provincial leaders who have gone to the courts to try to stop Trudeau's plan to establish, without the consent of the 10 premiers, a new governing charter that will be binding on their provincial legislatures.

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