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Canada: Quebec Elections Leave Independence Issue Unresolved

Ottawa, 2 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- It appears that Canada's predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec will not be voting on independence in the near future. A provincial election on Monday saw the separatist government re-elected but without a clear mandate to proceed with separation.

Premier Lucien Bouchard and his Parti Quebecois won 75 of the provincial legislature's 125 seats, but the federalist Liberal party actually got more votes: 44 percent as opposed to 43 percent, although that translated into only 48 seats.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was a strong showing by the province's third party, the Action Democratique, which picked up 12 percent of the popular vote and one seat. Its leader, Mario Dumont, has called for a 10-year moratorium on independence votes. He said Bouchard "was not elected to do a referendum on sovereignty. Quebeckers want constitutional peace."

The results do not resolve the issue of Quebec independence. Going into the election, Bouchard was promising a quick referendum on independence if he was elected with a strong majority.

In a subdued victory speech Bouchard said only that voters had given him a mandate to negotiate with the federal government for greater provincial powers. However, the results mean Bouchard will likely hold off on any quick vote on independence and, instead, concentrate on social and economic policies to build support among Quebec voters.

There have been two provincial referenda on independence in the last 20 years. Voters defeated the motion both times although only by the narrowest margin in the last one. A public opinion survey taken a couple of days before the election shows that 70 percent of Quebec voters oppose another referendum and would prefer that Bouchard negotiate a better deal for the province within Canada.

Almost as an afterthought, Bouchard added, "We also sought a mandate to get the conditions for a winning referendum on Quebec sovereignty." Then, in a strange twist, he made his clearest reference to independence in a message to Quebec's English-speaking minority. "Over the past few weeks I have had the feeling that, were it not for sovereignty, a great number of English-speaking Quebeckers would have supported our program and our candidates."

Liberal party leader Jean Charest said the Canadians and Quebeckers could take heart. "The result...reflects the fact that the people of Quebec, like the people of all Canada, want this country of ours to work and be a success."

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien said he would work with Bouchard to improve economic and social programs, but "when he talks about bringing together his famous 'winning conditions,' which he refuses to reveal, to hold another referendum on separation, he should know we will defend our country."

The province is faced with a deficit that is over $1 billion, public sector unions that are clamoring for new contracts, and a population that is demanding improvements in the health care system.

Heading into the election, it was clear that Quebec's English-speaking voters -- 10 percent of the population -- felt the main issue was independence, while French-speaking Quebeckers felt they could re-elect the Parti Quebecois and then vote "no" in a referendum later.

The head of the English-rights group Alliance Quebec, Harold Chorney, said that politicians on both sides of the question ignored the minority. The reason, he said, is ...simple math. The outcome of the vote is decided by francophones in about 30 'swing' ridings outside of Montreal. Francophones know they can change their mind but English-speakers have no such luxury because they are a minority."