Sun, Apr 06, 2014 - Page 7 News List

Liberals lead in Quebec midterm election

THORNY ISSUES:Party leaders warned of turmoil they said would result from electing a separatist government determined to achieve Quebec independence

AFP, MONTREAL, Canada

Canada’s mostly French-speaking Quebec Province goes to the polls tomorrow with the opposition Liberals — champions of Canadian unity — jumping ahead of the ruling separatist Parti Quebecois in public opinion surveys.

The Parti Quebecois (PQ), led by Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, had triggered the midterm elections 18 months into its mandate, hoping to gain seats to form a majority government.

The PQ held a strong lead as it readied to fight an election on its proposed secular values charter that would ban public sector workers from wearing religious apparel, including headscarves, turbans and yarmulkes.

The public is hotly divided over the controversial bill, and it would be a clear wedge issue in an election.

However, the campaign quickly turned to focus on the PQ’s intentions regarding the rest of Canada: Would a majority PQ government hold a third referendum on Quebec independence during its next mandate, or wait. Marois was ambiguous in her answers.

Liberal leader Philippe Couillard and other party leaders fanned fears of economic and social turmoil they said would result from electing a majority PQ government hell-bent on Quebec independence.

Quebecers twice rejected splitting from the rest of Canada in 1980 and 1995 referendums, and the latest polling shows two out of three Quebecers do not want to reopen this thorny debate.

Pierre Martin, a political science professor at the University of Montreal, said that even Quebec nationalists feel that now is not the time to press for independence.

The latest polls favor the Liberals with 37 to 40 percent, versus 28 to 33 percent for the Parti Quebecois, with two minor parties — the rightist Coalition Avenir Quebec and the leftist Quebec Solidaire — trailing both.

An analysis shows the Liberals could in fact win a majority of the 125 seats in the Quebec legislature. The PQ held 54 seats prior to the snap election call, while the Liberals had 49 seats.

A PQ defeat would be a major setback for the separatist movement and devastating politically for Marois, who became the province’s first female premier by unseating the Liberals in 2012 after nine years of Liberal rule, University of Montreal professor Claire Durant said.

When Marois called the election on March 5, her PQ party appeared to be virtually guaranteed to win a majority, thanks to massive support of French-speakers who make up 80 percent of the province’s population.

Her opponents were clearly divided over the secular charter, new Liberal leader Couillard, a former neurosurgeon, was untested and the Liberals’ usual economic platform was in shambles.

Suddenly everything changed. Marois introduced billionaire media mogul Pierre Karl Peladeau as a PQ candidate, hoping to reassure the business community that support for independence would not hurt the Quebec economy.

Marois sought to convince voters that they were “electing a government” and not deciding on Quebec’s future within or outside Canadian federalism — not yet.

In the dying days of an almost exclusively negative campaign, more typical themes emerged, including healthcare, education and jobs.

More than 1 million voters have already cast advance ballots, leaving five million more still to decide tomorrow who they want to govern Quebec.

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