Quebec separatist premier calls election

AP News
Posted: Mar 05, 2014 3:16 PM

MONTREAL (AP) — Quebec's premier dissolved the legislature Wednesday and called an election in a bid to gain a majority of seats for her pro-independence party, a development that could lead to another referendum on separation from Canada.

The possibility of a breakaway, however, remained distant. Opinion polls indicate the idea lacks popular support, and Parti Quebecois Premier Pauline Marois steered clear of the issue Wednesday.

Marois said she needs a majority to revive Quebec's economy and protect the province's distinct identity. She made no mention of sovereignty or another referendum.

"I'm asking you to give us the means to act," Marois said. "We have a plan and the team to make our plan succeed."

Voters in the French-speaking province of 8.1 million will head to the polls April 7.

The PQ is currently leading in the polls, followed by the Liberals and the Coalition for Quebec's Future.

The PQ's ultimate goal is to separate from Canada, but there's no guarantee the party will hold a referendum if it gets a majority. Marois has so far only promised to hold public hearings.

It has been nearly two decades since Quebec held a referendum on sovereignty. The province has held two such votes to split from Canada, most recently in 1995, when it narrowly rejected independence.

Marois took no questions from journalists following her statement Wednesday, but she has said in the past she'll hold a referendum when the time is right.

Polls show support for Quebec independence remains stuck at around 40 percent and hasn't changed significantly in 10 years.

Martin Papillon, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa, said those numbers won't necessarily deter the PQ.

"Of course support is low, it hasn't been mobilized. It hasn't been activated as a political issue," Papillon said.

If the PQ does get a majority, Papillon said Marois will be under immense pressure to call another referendum. And Marois will immediately take steps to drum up support for the cause.

"The PQ will do everything it can to continue pushing on the identity button and trigger resentment toward Canada," he said.

Quebec, which is 80 percent French-speaking, has plenty of independence even without quitting Canada. It sets its own income tax, has its own immigration policy favoring French-speakers, bases its legal code on France's and has legislation favoring the use of French over English.

Health care, the environment and job creation in a slumping economy are expected to be issues in the election.

But the PQ's controversial secular charter, which would ban public employees from wearing religious headgear such as Muslim headscarves and Jewish skullcaps, could overshadow them all.

Papillon noted the PQ's popularity has climbed with key francophone voters since the charter was first proposed last August. Focusing on such identity issues could help get them a majority, he said.

"Clearly, the PQ wants to make it a central issue of the campaign," he said.

Polls suggest the current Liberal leader, Philippe Couillard, has so far struggled to connect with voters.

Couillard said Wednesday the PQ is fostering divisions among Quebecois and would introduce another referendum if given the majority of seats.

"It's a certainty," Couillard told reporters. "They want to separate Quebec from Canada. Let's stop kidding ourselves here."

The PQ has been in power since September 2012, when it defeated the Liberals and longtime premier Jean Charest, a staunch advocate for Canadian unity.

There are questions now about who will be a leading voice on the federalist side.

Andre Juneau, a fellow at Queen's University Institute of Intergovernmental Affairs, said Canada's Conservative government has little influence in Quebec and could struggle to articulate the argument against separation.

Juneau, who worked in the Canadian government for 30 years, said that could create a difficult situation.

"To be honest, my fear is that the government is not going to take a dynamic or active approach to a referendum," he said.