If sovereignty is the main issue, voters may pass on PQ

As Pauline Marois launches her bid for a governing majority, one might well ask what could possibly go wrong for the Parti Québécois between now and the April 7 Quebec election?

As Pauline Marois launches her bid for a governing majority, one might well ask what could possibly go wrong for the Parti Québécois between now and the April 7 Quebec election?

According to a Léger Marketing poll published by QMI a few hours before Wednesday’s election call, the PQ has a 22-point head start on the second-place Liberals among the francophone voters who will determine which party forms the next government.

The controversial secularism charter that has become the government’s signature project is backed by a majority of voters.

In the lead-up to the call, the premier has used every lever of power to shore up her advantage, with key regions of the province showered with good-news government announcements.

In the past two elections, Marois faced off against former premier Jean Charest — a politician widely considered one of Canada’s most formidable campaigners.

This election will play out on a more level field.

The Liberals’ Philippe Couillard is a rookie leader who could have used more time to master his front line role.

Former PQ minister François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Quebec has shed more than a third of its support since the 2012 election.

All of the above has many Quebec watchers bracing for a repeat Quebec/Canada confrontation.

In the Conservative backrooms on Parliament Hill, for instance, the unity alert level has quietly been raised from green to amber.

That contingency planning is in order.

There have been two PQ governing cycles since 1976 and both featured a referendum on Quebec’s political future.

Marois may be set to spend the campaign offering noncommittal statements on the issue. The opening speech of her campaign did not even feature the word sovereignty.

But for sovereigntist baby boomers like herself, time is running out to see the dream of Quebec’s independence come through.

If she does win a majority next month, her base will expect nothing less than an all-out government effort to secure the winning conditions for another referendum.

But while it is tempting to treat the outcome of the April 7 vote as a foregone conclusion, anyone who has followed Quebec politics since the 1995 referendum should be wary of fast-forwarding to another showdown before the election campaign has even begun.

Over the past decade, voters in this country have regularly turned pre-election polls on their heads.

The Bloc Québécois started the 2011 federal campaign in as solid a position as the PQ is today. Yet, by voting day, it had traded its place with the fourth-ranked NDP.

The NDP sweep was not the first sign that a sizable contingent Quebec voters was seeking to break out of the sovereigntist/federalist box.

Since the last referendum, the PQ has managed to win a majority only once — under Lucien Bouchard in 1998 — and the party still came second to the Liberals in the popular vote.

Over that period, two parties — the CAQ on the right and Québec Solidaire on the left — have eaten away at the PQ’s electoral base. Marois’ mission in this campaign is to bring lapsed party supporters back to the fold.

But polls suggest that a strong majority of Quebecers — more than 60 per cent — remain averse to a return to referendum politics.

The more the April 7 ballot box question is tilted toward sovereignty versus federalism, the more those voters might think twice about voting for the PQ.

Marois is hoping to counter the widespread aversion to a referendum with the secularism charter.

But while the plan is popular with voters, it ranks well below the top tier of priorities.

According to a CBC-EKOS poll published earlier this week, only five per cent of Quebecers see the charter as a priority; the proportion of those who picked sovereignty was even lower.

By comparison, the economy was the choice of 42 per cent, easily outranking every other issue on the Quebec radar.

If the PQ — with so many strong cards in hand — cannot secure a majority on April 7, it may be plunged back into the kind of existential crisis that almost shattered the party and Marois’ leadership in opposition.

But if she wins her election gamble, the only federalist boots left on the ground in francophone Quebec next month could be federal ones.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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