Quebec's ruling party faces uphill battle to stay in power

The father of Quebec's separatist movement has quit. And whoever succeeds Ren'e L'evesque as leader of the Parti Qu'eb'ecois is going to have trouble using the idea of independence to win votes. Mr. L'evesque's resignation late last week, both as party leader and as Quebec's premier, ends months of speculation that he was a spent political force and would have to quit.

Two men lead the list of possible successors to head the party. One is Pierre-Marc Johnson, a doctor and lawyer who has been in Quebec's Cabinet for eight years. Mr. Johnson is a born-again federalist. His chief opponent is Bernard Landry, Quebec's minister of trade and international relations. He is a committed separatist.

Although the Parti Qu'eb'ecois trails the opposition Liberal Party in popularity, several polls have shown that the Parti Qu'eb'ecois could have a chance in an election if the moderate Mr. Johnson were party leader.

Under the party's Constitution, a leadership campaign lasts 90 days. But the party is thinking of shortening it to 60 days, because whoever is elected will have to get on with campaigning for the next provincial election, expected this fall or early spring. L'evesque will continue as premier and leader of the party until a new party leader is elected.

L'evesque had split the party by saying that independence would not be the issue in the provincial election. His resignation is in many ways a result of that split.

L'evesque failed in his effort to make Quebec an independent country, but he succeeded in being considered one of the great politicians of his generation.

L'evesque's first political job was in the Cabinet of Liberal Premier Jean Lesage. He nationalized Quebec's private electric utilities and created Hydro-Quebec, the provincially run electric utility. That alone would have left him a hero in the eyes of French Canada. But by the late '60s L'evesque had started to openly question federalism. He broke with the Liberal Party and started the Parti Qu'eb'ecois.

He gave the separatist movement the respectability it lacked. Eight years later L'evesque led the party to victory over the provincial Liberals. The Parti Qu'eb'ecois has ruled Quebec ever since.

The separatists lost the referendum on independence in 1980. Then last fall the province supported the Progressive Conservative Party of Brian Mulroney. Quebeckers were bored with separatism. They had already won many of their battles, such as establishing French as the official language of Quebec. L'evesque's failure was with the economy. It faltered as the party dealt with cultural matters.

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