QUEBEC separatists last month helped defeat a plan to bind Quebec more tightly to Canada by remaking the Constitution. But while that historic vote might have been expected to provide a big boost for the separatist cause, it is now looking much less powerful.
Riding a modest wave of support from their win last month, Quebec's federal separatist party, the Bloc Qucois, seems set to do well in federal parliamentary elections expected by summer.
Provincial elections expected anytime in the next two years, however, will signal whether Quebec's separatist Parti Qucois (PQ) can broaden its appeal while keeping the support of staunchly pro-independence members. Those elections are crucial, analysts say, because if PQ leader Jacques Parizeau beats Premier Robert Bourassa's federalist Liberal Party in Quebec, the next step would be a provincial referendum on sovereignty. If Mr. Bourassa wins, the separatists may be set back for years.
Some see problems ahead for the PQ as Quebec's economy sours and separatist sentiment wanes. The PQ has led the Liberal Party in recent polls by about four percentage points - the same as before the vote. But pollsters say that to win, the party must reach out to the nationalist-minded Liberals who supported the PQ's "no" stance on the unity referendum, but who do not favor outright independence.
"If the PQ doesn't reverse their party platform [of outright independence for Quebec] in the next six months they will have a lot of problems being elected," says Alain Gagnon, political science professor at McGill University in Montreal. "The mood of the province is not for independence. It's more for a looser form of `sovereignty association,' " he says.
Bernard Landry is wrestling with the PQ's strategy. As vice president of the party, he is the No. 2 politician in the province in charge of engineering a victory over the Liberal Party in the provincial elections. He says the PQ is in good position to capture power now.
"I think Quebec is closer to independence and Canada closer to accepting it," Mr. Landry says. "The referendum was another piece of evidence in the dossier of the abyssal distance between Quebec and the rest of Canada."
But some analysts say the PQ faces a tough internal ideological test: Can it moderate its image of toughness on language and advocacy of outright independence to attract middle-of-the-road voters?
"The ideological problem is that the PQ still does not know if it wants to lead a more openly nationalist program, or one ... that is more pluralist and tolerant" says Guy Laforest, a political scientist at Laval University. Adds Mr. Gagnon: "If they want to win they have to regroup around a more centrist plan. It's a major challenge to them and it's not sure yet that they can do it."
Landry says that the PQ's positions already are tolerant and fair to non-Francophones and that an independent Quebec would not be isolated, but would enjoy close economic ties with its neighbors, similar to those under discussion in Europe. He adds that Canada and Quebec are already "two nations" as a practical matter.
Still, a tough position on separation seems at odds with polls showing core support for independence only between 30 and 40 percent, down from a 64-percent peak a couple of years ago. During the referendum campaign, independence was scarcely mentioned for fear of alienating voters who consider themselves nationalists, but who want to remain a part of Canada.
"We have to be cautious because of the variety of motivations for voting no," Landry says.
Accountant Dean Loisel, interviewed outside a Montreal polling station after the referendum, suggests one reason for PQ caution. He is the kind of ambivalent voter the PQ must woo in order win in the provincial elections.
"I'm not for the independence of Quebec - I didn't vote for that," says Mr. Loisel, a Liberal who nevertheless rejected Bourassa's pleas and joined separatists in voting down the constitutional deal. "I'm a [Quebec] nationalist, but I believe in Canada."
"Quebec will make the next move [toward independence] in the next federal election," Landry says. "Then the next step is to take power in Quebec City [in provincial elections]. Ultimately we would have a referendum on sovereignty. That's the obstacle course for us."