Separatists Re-Elected in Quebec
By David Crary
AP Writer
MONTREAL (AP) -- Quebec's pro-independence government was re-elected Monday but won only 43 percent of the popular vote, likely to limit its zest for a quick secession referendum.
The outcome means a new term of up to five years for Quebec's charismatic premier, Lucien Bouchard, who says he will call a referendum on independence whenever he feels the separatist side can win.
But he may need to wait a while for what he calls the "winning conditions." His Parti Quebecois retained its majority in the legislature but was narrowly outpolled in the popular vote by its anti-separatist rival, the Quebec Liberal Party.
With 94 percent of the 23,000 polling stations reporting late Monday, the separatists had 42.8 percent of the votes, to 43.6 percent for the Liberals and 12 percent for a third party, Democratic Action.
The separatists were on track to win 77 of the legislature's 125 seats, the Liberals 46 and Democratic Action one, with one seat to be filled later because the separatist candidate recently died.
The outcome was a virtual replay of 1994, when the separatists won 77 seats to 47 for the Liberals while each receiving about 44 percent of the popular vote.
Bouchard's main rival was Liberal party leader Jean Charest, who tried to persuade voters that the province would prosper only if the decades-old threat of secession was abandoned.
Charest, 40, became an early favorite when he quit federal politics in March to enter the Quebec race; in English-speaking Canada he was viewed as the potential savior of national unity.
But despite his family roots in Quebec, he was widely perceived by the province's French-speaking majority as more of an outsider than Bouchard, and less likely to do battle for the province in any confrontations with the federal government.
Bouchard, 59, has maintained high popularity ratings despite overseeing painful spending cuts over the past three years in a drive to erase Quebec's deficit. Among Francophones, he has never lost the mythic aura he gained when, after losing a leg and almost dying from a flesh-eating disease in 1994, he came back to lead the separatists to near-victory in a 1995 referendum on secession.
Though Bouchard has served in the federal Cabinet and federal Parliament, this was the first time he ever ran as a party leader in Quebec. He was appointed premier without an election in 1996 after his predecessor, Jacques Parizeau, resigned following the 1995 referendum.
There were 5.2 million eligible voters Monday, and turnout was more than 80 percent even though this was the fourth province-wide vote in the past five years.
Analysts had suggested that a landslide separatist victory -- approaching 50 percent of the popular vote -- would lead to pressure from Parti Quebecois militants to hold a secession referendum quickly. Monday's results were considered more likely to prompt a cautious approach from Bouchard, and perhaps a wait of a year or two before considering a referendum.
The separatists have lost secession referendums twice before, once by a big margin in 1980 and just narrowly in 1995.
Bouchard, anxious to avoid a third defeat, said he would call another referendum only when he was convinced the separatists would win. In the meantime, he says he would seek more autonomy for all 10 provinces, particularly in regard to control over social programs.
Many Quebeckers supported Bouchard even though they oppose secession. Polls suggest only about 43 percent of Quebec voters would support independence now, and about two-thirds do not want a referendum on secession in the next few years.
To woo these voters, Bouchard tried to portray the election as the choice of the most competent leadership, with the thorny question of a referendum to be addressed at a later date.
The Liberals' chances clearly were hurt by the relatively strong showing of Democratic Action, whose leader, 28-year-old Mario Dumont, retained his seat in the legislature. His party, which appeals to many young voters, favors greater autonomy for Quebec but stops short of advocating outright secession.
About 83 percent of Quebec's 7.4 million people are French speakers. The rest are divided among English-speakers with long-term roots in Canada and more recently arrived immigrants from southern Europe, Asia and elsewhere.
The long-term crusade for Quebec independence stems from a feeling among many French Quebeckers that their culture is different from the rest of Canada, plus a yearning to manage their own affairs and have their own national symbols.