Is Canada going to break up?
That question is the lens through which the world, including English Canada, looks at next Monday's elections in Quebec. Those who have been hoping this vote will dampen the prospect of another referendum on Quebec separation seem likely to be disappointed.
Jean Charest, the charismatic young leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec, has made "no referendum" almost the only theme of his campaign. But voters appear to be about to reject him in favor of the present Parti Qubcois (PQ) government under Premier Lucien Bouchard - less because they are looking for another opportunity to vote for separation than because they trust the PQ's management of Quebec's affairs over the past four years.
Interestingly, some voters are supporting the PQ because they assume Mr. Bouchard will not call for a referendum. He has said he will call for one only when winning conditions are in place.
This has opened him to criticism from those who question his commitment to sovereignty, despite his personal history as a passionate Quebec nationalist. But it has also left him more options than Mr. Charest's just-say-no strategy.
Approval of status quo
"The PQ is managing the way I'd manage my own business," says Marie-Jose Bisson, from behind the counter of a coffee shop in Sainte-Foy, a comfortable suburb of Quebec City. "They aren't spending money they don't have," this first-time voter adds, referring to promises Charest gave earlier in the campaign to restore budget cuts made under the PQ.
Quebec, like any number of other jurisdictions from Australia to Austria, has faced trimming social spending too expensive to maintain in light of global economic problems. Other provinces in Canada have done the same thing, but the issue has been particularly sensitive here because social benefits are so central to Quebeckers' sense of identity.
Quebec has resembled countries where market-minded leftist governments have often had the credibility to make welfare cuts that their conservative counterparts could not have managed. The PQ, considered a social democratic party as well as a Quebec nationalist party, has reduced a $6 billion (Canadian; US$3.9 billion) budget deficit. If reelected, the Bouchard government is expected to present a balanced budget in the spring.
The cuts have not been easy. Louise Paradis, a publisher from Pontneuf, Quebec, is a PQ supporter who attended a big party rally in Quebec City last weekend. But she says that, when her father was hospitalized recently, there was no room available for him because of budget cuts.
For four days they kept him in the corridor, beside a soda machine. She shudders at the memory of coins clanking through the slot around the clock. Still, she adds, "I don't know that another government could have done any better."
But Yves Bussires in Charlesbourg complains that budget cuts only move money around; what's needed is more investment. "And investors will come only if there's no separation," he says.
Pat Odgers, also of Charlesbourg, speaks against separation as well. As an adoptee, and then an immigrant from Britain at age 16, she says, "I've had enough separations in my life." Now she works fully bilingually in the health-care system. "The bilingualism gives Quebec a richness - I don't want that to be diluted. I want that to be spread."
The political track
Both Bouchard and Charest were drafted into Quebec politics. Both started out as Progressive Conservatives, serving in federal Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's Cabinet.
But Bouchard left the Tories and eventually became the (federal) Bloc Qubcois leader in Ottawa. Then Jacques Parizeau, Bouchard's predecessor as Quebec premier, resigned after the 1995 referendum narrowly failed to muster a majority for Quebec independence. Bouchard consented to a draft to become PQ leader - but only after the party agreed to his stipulations about budget cuts.
At the beginning of this year, Charest was leader of the federal Tories in Ottawa. When Quebec Liberal leader Daniel Johnson resigned in March, however, Charest came under pressure from across Canada to accept a draft to head the Liberals. From this position, the idea was, he could exercise his charisma to defeat the PQ in the next election, thereby staving off another referendum and saving Canada from dismemberment.
It doesn't appear to be working out that way. "Charest was a big hit in the polls at first," says Iris Tilmant, behind the counter at the coffee shop with Ms. Bisson. "He looked so good with his lovely curly hair."
But the initial euphoria over a new leader, which had given the Liberals a big lead over the PQ, evaporated. More recent polls are giving the PQ a slight edge in terms of popular vote - which can translate into an overwhelming majority in the parliament. Since the Liberals count heavily on the Anglophone vote, which is concentrated in the Montreal region and the so-called Eastern Townships, where Charest himself is from, the Liberals need about a four-point edge just to be even with the PQ.
Charest, known as a disciplined campaigner who lets only his sunny emotions out in public and never attacks the media, has been breaking both of his own rules recently. And he was widely seen as the third-place finisher in a debate last week against Bouchard and third-party leader Mario Dumont.
The swing voters are the "soft" nationalists, variously estimated at about a quarter of the electorate. They want some constitutional formulation that does not reduce Quebec to one province among 10 in Canada, but rather acknowledges a special role for Quebec as one of two founding nations with the English.
Although these voters' natural home is the PQ, they are open to persuasion by a Liberal who can convince them he can defend Quebec's interests. But Charest has not only ruled out the possibility of a referendum, he has also called for a freeze on constitutional initiatives. This means he doesn't have anything to offer soft nationalists - no satisfying alternative to independence.
Bouchard exploited this vulnerability at Sunday's rally. "After Nov. 30," he said, "Jean Charest wants to put Quebec back in the garage with his campaign bus and put both of them up on blocks."