QUEBEC separatists' push for a vote this year on independence from Canada is suddenly unraveling.
Support for Quebec ``sovereignty'' - a fuzzy term for independence favored by hard-core separatists - had been slowly growing to include a group of about 500,000 swing voters known as ``soft nationalists.''
The euphoria that followed the election of the separatist Parti Qucois (PQ) to the provincial government in September helped to boost support for independence to a peak of 49 percent in January. But harsh economic realities, such as Quebec's 12 percent unemployment, and growing concerns over the likely economic damage of separation have slashed support back to 40 percent, recent polls show.
Separatists now know they face the likelihood of a humiliating defeat if they hold an independence vote this year.
Separatist Premier Jacques Parizeau, who has repeatedly promised a clear ``yes or no'' referendum question on Quebec independence in 1995, now faces several difficult political choices:
* He can proceed with a vote and risk a defeat many say would squelch Quebec nationalism for a decade or more.
* He can soften the wording of the referendum question to make it more ambiguous and thereby win more support - breaking a promise he has made to have a ``clear'' question.
* Or he can break another promise and delay the vote beyond this year, damaging his key support among hard-liners in his own party.
``The separatists are in big trouble,'' Rejean Pelletier, a political scientist at Laval University in Quebec City.
``There's been a change in public mood,'' he says. This is not, however, due to lack of effort.
To whip up support for independence, the PQ government last month launched no fewer than 18 commissions to hold hearings on sovereignty in all parts of the province. And printed explanations of the economic, political, and international impacts of independence were mailed to Quebec households.
But fresh enthusiasm for Quebec nationhood never materialized.
``It's as if these commissions had no effect,'' Mr. Pelletier says. ``Or worse, like they somehow backfired.''
At one of the last such commission meetings, held in downtown Montreal at the Museum of Contemporary Art last Friday night, only about a third of the 200-seat auditorium was filled.
With blue spotlights blazing against a white backdrop, a panel of 14 prominent Quebeckers listened to one speaker after another.
Instead of pounding out views on Quebec nationhood, however, most speakers worried about loss of government subsidies for community groups. The meeting began late, ended early, and its high point was muted applause when a young student said he wanted a bilingual education, but couldn't find a university that taught in both languages.
``To tell the truth, the meeting was pretty boring,'' says Pamela Koren, an actress. ``I didn't have any great expectations for it because I felt it was a propaganda exercise. But I wanted to come because I felt it was a part of history.''
The commissions' credibility was partly undermined when provincial Liberal opposition leader Daniel Johnson refused to permit his federalist followers to sit on the panels, claiming the PQ had stacked the panels.
Fear of economic damage, too, seems to be sapping the independence campaign. Since 1980 when a similar referendum was defeated, Quebeckers have endured two harsh recessions. Many remain skeptical that separation would cause only minor damage.
Quebec's business community has come out strongly against separation. The PQ, meanwhile, is churning out a raft of reports to bolster its claims that sovereignty would be benign.
Francine Lalonde, a long-time separatist now a member of Canada's Parliament, says the need ``is to have less discussion of `how' this process is going to occur and more about `why' it must occur. We need vision more than anything.''
But any vision of Quebec independence is plainly not a top priority to 19-year-old Edward Fast, who stands shivering on an icy Montreal sidewalk, his hat stretched out for coins.
``I'm not sure too many people are listening anymore,'' says the unemployed plumber's assistant. ``There's a lot of us who need jobs and I don't think independence is going to help that. If I had to vote today, it would be to stay with Canada.''