SITTING in the driver's seat of his campaign bus, arms outstretched and hands clamped on the steering wheel, Quebec's separatist party leader Jacques Parizeau smiles for photographers.
No need for a plastered-on fake grin here. With just 47 campaign days left until the Sept. 12 provincial election in Quebec, Mr. Parizeau is confident that his separatist Parti Qucois will form the next provincial government.
Once in power, he says, the PQ will hold a province-wide referendum on whether to cut Quebec's 127-year-old ties with the Canadian federation and form an independent nation.
``In two months, I believe that we will have a new government and, within a year, Quebec will be a country,'' Parizeau told 1,000 cheering party organizers the day before the election date was announced.
To be sure, the PQ under Parizeau does enjoy a commanding lead in the polls over the federalist Liberal Party government led by Premier Daniel Johnson. A poll published July 23 in the Quebec daily newspaper La Presse gave the PQ 52 percent over the Liberals' 42 percent.
Ironically, those same polls show Mr. Johnson to be more personally popular than Parizeau. But Johnson's biggest problem is that his party has been in power for nine years and the slogan - ``It's time for a change'' - is ringing true in the province.
While many pundits predict a big PQ victory, there is debate over how big it must be to be considered an endorsement of separatism. If the PQ wins only by a thin margin, Parizeau will have more trouble arguing his plan to separate prior to the referendum that Quebeckers have already approved. Polls consistently show that only about 40 percent of Quebec voters favor Quebec independence while 60 percent oppose the idea.
How can a separatist party be wildly popular when a clear majority of Quebeckers dislike the idea of separating from Canada?
``I think this election is about good government,'' says Rejean Pelletier, a political scientist at Laval University in Quebec City. ``After nine years of Liberal government, the voters are making a judgment on what the government has done in the past.''
Also, Quebeckers are long renowned as careful, even strategic voters. Many who will vote for the PQ because they are tired of enduring 13 percent unemployment in the province, for example, will do so with the understanding that they can vote against separating from Canada.
``When it comes to the question of sovereignty, nationalism, or independence, many will simply go the other way,'' Mr. Pelletier says.
There is precedent for this. Quebeckers elected the PQ and Rene Levesque in 1976, but in 1980 voted against a PQ referendum proposing a negotiated separation from Canada. Yet there are potentially dangerous differences today that could make such a calculation rather risky, several analysts say.
First, Parizeau's strain of separatism is much more aggressive than Mr. Levesque's. Many predict that once in office, Parizeau's PQ will work actively to accentuate friction between Quebec and the federal bureaucracy - and between Quebec and other provinces.
When asked recently if he would cooperate with federal reform of Canada's social safety net, Parizeau responded: ``I really fail to see why we should waste any time on it.''
Such comments infuriate English-speaking Canadians, a point Parizeau will exploit more actively once elected in order to build nationalist sentiment in Quebec, analysts say.
Canadians for years have tried to show Quebeckers they want them to stay in many ways, including bumper stickers that read: ``My Canada includes Quebec.''
But after two grueling constitutional debates and more than a decade of leaping to the defense of a Canada that includes Quebec, the warmth and patience seem mostly gone. In May, premiers from the Western provinces stated that they were fed up with Quebec dithering and would prefer a clear decision to stay - or go.
With Quebec unemployment high and faced with the PQ's political juggernaut, Liberal Party leader Johnson has moved away from his earlier strategy of touting his expertise in managing the economy. Instead, he has adopted a high-risk strategy of exploiting the polling numbers that show Quebeckers don't want to separate from Canada. To vote for the separatists is to disrupt the economy for another year at least, even if a referendum is defeated, Johnson argues.
By arguing the election is not primarily about good government, but about separation, the Liberal premier could tap into voter anguish. But there is also the risk, if the Liberals lose, that when it comes time to fight a referendum this argument will be used against them by Parizeau.
Heedless of this, Johnson exhorted Quebeckers July 24 after announcing the election date to ``choose their destiny'' in the coming election. A PQ win, he said, would be a ``horrific scenario.''