Quebec's New Premier Faces Separatist Challenge


ROBERT BOURASSA, premier of Quebec, officially announced yesterday he will step aside in favor of Daniel Johnson, the straight-laced president of Quebec's Treasury Board.

The transition marks the end of an era epitomized by Mr. Bourassa's deft political and verbal skating between federalist and separatist camps. By appealing to both federalists and those favoring a sovereign Quebec, Bourassa kept provincial separatists off balance and out of power since the mid-1980s.

Now Quebec enters a period of uncertainty as separatists gain ground at both the federal and provincial government levels.

Separatists from Quebec have become the official opposition in the federal parliament, and the province's separatist party leads in the polls. The main challenge for Mr. Johnson is to revive the Quebec Liberal Party's fading standing in the polls in time for elections next fall. The Liberal Party has been the champion of Canadian unity in the province.

The Liberals have seemed lost since Bourassa indicated this fall that he might leave soon for personal reasons. That opened the way for a leadership contest that never materialized. No one within the Quebec Liberal Party stepped forward to contest Johnson's nomination, so under party rules he automatically became Bourassa's successor Tuesday when the nomination deadline passed. Johnson will take power on Jan.11.

``I'm very happy,'' Johnson told reporters. ``I've never been more ready.''

Still, Johnson faces a slew of challenges in the province - high unemployment, a sour economy, and an increasingly vocal separatist Parti Qucois (PQ) that is expected to strongly challenge him in an election that must be held by next fall.

Johnson's rise to power makes him the third member of his immediate family to hold the post as Quebec leader. His father, Daniel Sr., was premier in the 1960s; his brother Pierre Marc held the post for just two months in the mid-1980s.

Johnson will most likely face a difficult battle in the election next fall given his image as a humorless accountant and the fact that Quebeckers like a bit of pizazz in their political leaders.

Still, he feels he has some things going for him, such as the fact that Quebeckers traditionally vote to balance their political representatives. After the PQ's federal sister party, the Bloc Qucois, won big in the federal election in October, many analysts say Quebeckers may be less inclined to vote into power a separatist provincial government as well, current polls notwithstanding.

Some political observers, however, have likened Johnson's quandary to that of Kim Campbell. She took over for Brian Mulroney in June, but never got her feet on the ground and was trounced in the fall. Yet Johnson says, unlike Ms. Campbell, he has time to prove himself.

``We've got time,'' he told the Canadian news weekly Maclean's. ``[We have] three full seasons to prove that this government is capable of providing people with hope.''

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