Quebeckers to Vote for Change, But Divided Over Independence

Candidates soften extremist views on separatist issue as poll nears

SITTING on a park bench in downtown Montreal, Suzie Levque pauses to consider the question 4.8 million Quebec voters will face in Monday's provincial election: whether or not to elect a separatist government intent on splitting Quebec away from Canada.

''I want a better economy,'' says the French-speaking accountant. ''I want change. Everybody wants change.''

So who will she vote for?

''I will vote for Mr. Parizeau,'' she says, referring to Jacques Parizeau, the mustachioed, three-piece suited leader of the separatist Parti Qubcois. ''I trust him.''

Polls here show that the PQ has, in the final two weeks of this 50-day election campaign, increased its already-large lead over Premier Daniel Johnson's federalist Liberal Party. A recent poll for the Toronto-based Globe and Mail newspaper put PQ support at 49 percent, compared with 38 percent for Mr. Johnson's Liberals.

Analysts say such numbers could give Parizeau as many as 90 seats out of 125 in the Quebec legislature. Despite such numbers, Johnson battles on, hoping he will be able to stage a come-from-behind upset like the one that his father -- also once premier of Quebec -- engineered in 1966.

In the campaign's waning days, Johnson has been fighting for the ''soft nationalist'' vote -- about 9 percent of all voters -- who favor more powers for Quebec within Canada, but fear secession. Renouncing earlier statements that he is ''a Canadian first and foremost,'' Johnson has adopted a more nationalistic stance -- to Parizeau's open scorn.

For many voters, Johnson's new position lacks credibility. Still, it might have yielded results if adopted earlier. Nearly two-thirds of Quebeckers expect the province to still be a part of Canada four years from now, according to another poll released this week. Other polls show 60 percent of Quebeckers would vote against separating if a referendum were held today.

Mindful of this, even Parizeau has muffled his earlier hard line on separation from Canada. After pitching separation hard in the campaign's first weeks, the PQ's lead in the polls slipped a bit. At that point, Parizeau began to emphasize good government and to play down the separation issue.

For example, a plan to have the new PQ-dominated Quebec legislature make a ''solemn declaration'' of Quebec's intent to secede will be a purely symbolic gesture, Parizeau says, although it had earlier been part of a phased approach to separating.

The metamorphosis of both Parizeau and Johnson away from their original extreme and opposite positions on the separation question yields a clue as to where Quebeckers' true sentiments lie.

''The Quebec people don't want to choose between the extremes of separating or the status quo within Canada,'' says Dale Thomson, a political scientist at McGill University in Montreal. ''The public simply hasn't made up its mind either way. The candidates have had to modify their positions to reflect that fact.''

Parizeau owes his large lead mainly to overwhelming support in rural Francophone districts. About 82 percent of Quebec's 6.9 million residents are Francophones. Parizeau has throttled on back his campaign in order to avoid last-minute gaffes.

Johnson, meanwhile, has gone on the attack in ''swing'' districts in Montreal where the PQ's strength is muted by large numbers of Anglophones (English speakers) and immigrants.

Andrew Duchek, a 29-year-old engineer who emigrated to Canada from Odessa, Ukraine, recalls that 90 percent of Ukrainians voted to separate from the former Soviet Union. He cannot imagine Quebec could really separate.

''When Ukraine became independent, it was delivered from big problems -- from the Soviet Union,'' he says in broken English. ''If Quebec breaks away, it is the beginning of a lot of problems. And I think people are smart enough they don't want to separate.''

Raymond Couture, a Francophone from one of the Montreal voting districts that Johnson is working hard to win, agrees with Mr. Duchek's sentiments.

''It is absolutely ridiculous to think of separating,'' he says. ''It would be horrendous. I'll vote Liberal because it's a vote against the PQ.''

MR. Couture, who is repainting the steps of his apartment building in preparation for winter, admits his view runs counter to most Francophone sentiments. ''I will lose,'' he says of his vote, ''but we [Quebec] won't have to separate. Remember I said that.''

Allan Manus, an Anglophone photographer and native of Montreal, is selling his framed pictures along an open air mall. There is no question, he says, that Quebeckers are of two minds on the issue of the future of their province.

But Ms. Levque, the accountant, says that she may very well vote to separate when Parizeau's promised referendum is held.

''I think if the question comes, I'm going to say 'yes,' '' she says with a smile. Of course I can't say 100 percent that I will, it all depends.''

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