QUEBEC separatists are poised for a massive electoral victory in their own province in the Oct. 25 elections, with uncertain consequences for the Canadian federation, analysts say.
Nobody expects the Bloc Qucois (BQ), which is reaping the fruits of Quebecker's unhappiness with mainstream parties, the federal government, and high unemployment, to win the national election. The separatist party isn't even running candidates outside Quebec.
But voters in the nation's second most populous province appear set to send at least 50 and possibly as many as 60 separatists to Ottawa to represent them in Parliament, polls show. That could give the BQ, led by Lucien Bouchard, the second highest number of seats in the 295-seat House of Commons.
Jon Pammett, chairman of the political science department at Carleton University in Ottawa, says the Liberal Party led by Jean Chretien seems set to capture more than the minimum 148 seats needed to form a majority government. That would make the large and vocal BQ and the western-based Reform Party mere nuisances.
Yet if Mr. Chretien's Liberals only get a slim majority or stumble into a minority government, the balance of power could fall to the BQ or Reform.
``If there is a large Liberal Party majority, the Bloc won't have much direct power even if it is the official opposition,'' Mr. Pammett says ``But if the Liberals form a minority government, the power position changes considerably. A bloc of 50 from the BQ would be able to much more directly affect legislation.''
The BQ was formed when Mr. Bouchard, a Conservative Member of Parliament, led other Quebec Conservatives to split from the party following the 1990 failure of the Meech Lake Accords. The accords would have recognized Quebec's status as a ``distinct society'' within Canada. The BQ's popularity has remained at around 40 percent for the last three years in Quebec.
Yet few expected the BQ to hold their ground once a federal campaign began. Conservatives led by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had won big in 1984 and even bigger in 1988, garnering 63 of 75 seats.
This time, however, Conservatives will be doing well to win even two seats in the Oct. 25 national vote, analysts say. The big difference is that the powerful provincial separatist party, Parti Qucois (PQ), helped Mr. Mulroney, but this time is helping the BQ.
``The [electoral] machine that put Mulroney in power in '84 was the PQ machines, and in 1988 it was the Liberal and PQ machines,'' says Yves Martin, a BQ strategist. ``Mrs. Campbell would be leading in the polls here today - except that this time the PQ machine is working for us.'' Mr. Martin himself is a PQ strategist, on loan to Bouchard.
The BQ surprised everyone by surging 10 percentage points, from about 40 percent support to around 50 percent, says Claude Gauthier, director of research for CROP, a Montreal polling firm.
Key to the BQ's surge has been Bouchard's ability to attract support outside the ranks of hard-core separatists. More than a third of those who favor the BQ this time do not consider themselves separatists, pollsters say.
Bouchard has reassured them that the BQ would not seek autonomy at the federal level or play an obstructionist role. Instead, he says, the BQ will negotiate with Ottawa and set the stage for a provincial referendum on autonomy.
Meanwhile, he says, he will look out for Quebec's interests.
So powerful is the BQ wave, says Mr. Gauthier, that even the next likely prime minister - the Liberals' Chretien - is having to fight for his seat in his home district of Shawinigan, Quebec.
Chretien's appeal is largely restricted to the island of Montreal's federalist anglophones and non-French-speaking immigrants who make up roughly 40 percent of the province.
Given the political alienation among Quebeckers, many feel the only choice is to vote for the BQ and see what happens.
Andre Cote, an unemployed Montreal carpenter sitting in a Montreal Burger King on a rainy October evening says, ``I don't trust the federal politicians anymore.''
``They just keep making the deficit bigger and taxing us more. I want something different, so I'm voting for the Bloc,'' Mr. Cote says.