Separatists Slip in Quebec Vote

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

TORONTO, March 26 -- Voters in Quebec on Monday refused to endorse another campaign for independence from Canada for the French-speaking province.

Only about 28 percent of voters cast ballots in the provincial National Assembly election for the once-powerful Parti Quebecois, which had called for a third attempt to pass a referendum on Quebec sovereignty, according to results with nearly all votes counted.

But voters also took away the majority rule of the Liberal Party government. The ballot results will require the Liberals and a surging middle-of-the-road party, Action Democratique du Quebec, to negotiate an alliance to govern in the province's parliament. The Liberals won about 33 percent of the vote, barely ahead of the ADQ, which won about 31 percent.

Both parties strongly oppose another contentious referendum on sovereignty after previous referendums on independence failed in 1980 and 1995.

Voters "sent a message that we must hear," acknowledged the leader of the Parti Quebecois, André Boisclair. In a speech conceding defeat, however, he insisted that there are "millions of Quebecers who want to make our people into a country."

The premier, Liberal leader Jean Charest, 48, seemed to be holding on to a very thin margin to keep his own seat, although the outcome appeared headed for a recount. His party, now reduced to leading a minority government, was shaken as voters indicated they want a change in the debate that has long dominated politics here.

"There is fatigue around the sovereignty issue," said Allan Gregg, chairman of polling firm the Strategic Counsel. But Gregg said that does not mean the separatist movement is dead. "Eventually, there will be winning conditions," he said.

Historically French Quebec has been uncomfortable within Anglo-dominated Canada. Periodic moves toward independence by the second-most populous province always have created alarm in the federal government as an existential crisis for the country. Passions about the issue have spawned violent protests, bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and scandals.

The federal government has rarely been content simply to watch the debate in Quebec. Canada's prime minister, Conservative leader Stephen Harper, in the waning days of the election handed the province an extraordinary windfall worth about 2 billion U.S. dollars in the form of a tax "equalization" system to try to pacify Quebecers.

But when Charest promptly announced he would use the money to finance a $650-per-person tax cut, the public inside and outside Quebec recoiled at what appeared to be a bald attempt to buy votes with taxpayer money from other provinces.

"Quebec sucks Canada dry," a headline in the Ottawa Sun said.

Despite the promise of tax relief, public opinion polls showed voters disapproved of Charest's majority government. They spurned his last-minute plea that Quebec needs a strong majority-led government to wield influence in Canada.

The upstart ADQ leader, Mario Dumont, 36, struck a middle position on sovereignty, opposing another referendum but saying he supports an autonomous Quebec.

The leader of the separatist party, Boisclair, 40, is openly gay and had acknowledged using cocaine as a cabinet minister, but neither fact became a serious issue in the campaign.

His Parti Quebecois led Quebec's provincial government for 18 of the last 31 years. Referendums brought by the PQ for sovereignty in 1980 lost 60 percent to 40 percent, and in 1995 by a slim 51 percent to 49 percent. The PQ was replaced by Charest's Liberals in 2003.

"The polarization between sovereigntists and federalists that for so long shaped the Quebec landscape is no longer the defining feature of the province's politics," wrote columnist Chantal Hebert in the Toronto Star.

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