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Canada: Quebec Voters Face Crucial Elections

Ottawa, 2 November 1998, (RFE/RL) -- Voters in Canada's predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec go to the polls Nov. 30 in a provincial election that could have a major bearing on the country's future.

The premier of the province Lucien Bouchard -- head of the separatist Parti Quebecois -- promised that, if reelected, he would hold another referendum on Quebec independence. He said "if we are reelected, we will have obtained the mandate that we are seeking to unite the conditions of a winning referendum, of a referendum which will have Quebeckers take the decision to enter the future with a sovereign government, with a sovereign state." He also said that "Quebec must speak with its own voice at the table of nations in the next century."

There have been two previous referendum votes in Quebec: 1980, when the issue was soundly defeated and, 1995, when the federalist side eked out a very narrow win. After the 1995 vote, the federal government asked the Supreme Court of Canada to determine whether Quebec could separate from the rest of Canada.

In a ruling handed down in August, the Court said Quebec does not have the right to separate unilaterally under either Canadian or international law. While the federal government said the ruling should end the argument, the Quebec government said the decision conferred legitimacy on Quebec's aspirations for independence.

Quebec's desire for independence has consumed much of the country's attention for much of the last three decades. The province's French-speaking majority -- surrounded by a sea of English-speakers in North America -- believes that is the only way to maintain its French language and culture. The quest for recognition as a "distinct society" has caused a rift between Quebec and the other nine provinces and two territories. They claim that no province should be singled out for special attention.

When the election was called, the separatist Parti Quebecois held 74 of the 125 seats in the provincial legislature. The federalist Liberal Party had 45 seats. The Liberal leader, Jean Charest -- who became party leader last spring -- has accused Bouchard of being "shackled to the referendum debate and that it means over the next four years all discussion in Quebec will be about a referendum and sovereignty when we should be talking about social and economic issues."

Both politicians are describing this election campaign as the fight of their lives. It is also very much about their different visions of the future for Quebec. Bouchard will continue to argue that Quebec must chart its own course as the only francophone jurisdiction in North America. Charest will argue that the election is about choice: "Mr. Bouchard has said he wants to continue as things are now. We know what that means -- more poverty, more unemployment -- or people can choose to do things differently."

Both Bouchard and Charest are popular leaders. Recent public opinion polls show support for the two is almost evenly divided with Bouchard having a narrow edge. One recent survey found support for independence is sliding.

While two-thirds of Quebec voters believe there will be another referendum, nearly an equal number -- 64 per cent -- do not want one. This survey also found that most Quebec voters do not buy the separatist party's line that the provincial economy is unaffected by the lingering prospect of yet another referendum battle.

The swing voters in this election will be young francophones in the 25- to 40-year-old age group. Some of them were not yet born when the idea of an independent Quebec first surfaced and so, have grown up with the notion of separation as a part of their lives. Both politicians will be targeting this group of voters because, in the last election in 1994, there were 29 seats won by less than 2,000 votes.

The federal Liberal party of Prime Minister Jean Chretien is expected to stay on the sidelines during the campaign, leaving the federalist arguments to Charest. Chretien did create a bit of a flurry last week, however, when he said there is no need for constitutional change because Quebec's "traditional demands have already been met." The comment drew strong reactions from Quebec which has been demanding that its "distinct status" be entrenched in the Canadian Constitution. Since then, Chretien has back-tracked, saying that he would work with Charest to recognize Quebec's "unique" character in the constitution.