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Referendum revulsion may be the litmus test for Quebec voters Add to ...

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Quebeckers feel trapped by their politics, and they have a week to figure out what they most desperately want to escape.

The home-stretch campaigning will see parties return to their proven vote-winners – the PQ renewed focus on its charter of values on Sunday. And the final days are also starting to focus on issues of integrity, of who has been questioned by police and who used tax havens, as parties hope unseemly revelations will turn voters away from their opponents.

But this election campaign has told us far more about the voters in Quebec than it ever will about the parties.

They don’t want a referendum. They’re not crazy about returning so soon to the Liberals, who had a long term in power and left an odour of shady dealings. But though sizable chunks of the frustrated electorate have turned several times in recent years toward new parties, most Quebeckers still don’t see them as likely to take power.

The big story of this Quebec election campaign has been about voters’ revulsion toward another referendum.

It’s been so strong that PQ Leader Pauline Marois has been forced to make a heavy bargain. She couldn’t, for fear of offending her base, completely rule out a referendum, but she went close, acknowledging that Quebeckers don’t want a referendum and she won’t hold one until they do. On Sunday, she promised not to put public money into promoting sovereignty, either.

This is not the death of the sovereigntist movement, even if the rest of Canada wishes it were so. Polls show support for sovereignty is pretty stable at around 40 per cent of the population, and roughly half of francophones. It’s a referendum, the immediate disruption, the drama, that people don’t want, at least for now. Even a large chunk of sovereigntists say they don’t want a referendum.

That revulsion revived Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard’s campaign. He hammered the impending-referendum theme, and became the front-runner.

But without the referendum issue, the Liberals wouldn’t have much hope. They were just booted out 18 months ago after more than nine years in office. Many associate the party with the malfeasance in Quebec politics, even if most smoking guns have come from the municipal arena. Quebeckers, on the whole, are still weary and wary of Liberals. But in a choice between two major parties, those who didn’t want to take any chances on a referendum didn’t feel they had much choice.

That is why the other story of this campaign has been François Legault and his Coalition Avenir Québec. Mr. Legault promised unequivocally not to hold a referendum, and a “truce” on federalist-separatist battles so that the province can focus on the issues that most Quebeckers think are most important now. And he’s not a Liberal.

And yet Mr. Legault spent the first half of this campaign being squeezed out by those polarized federalist-sovereigntist debates. Mr. Legault, a former PQ minister who has declared neutrality on the issue, can’t find a place in that kind of sovereigntist-federalist fight. In last Thursday’s debates, Françoise David, Leader of Québec Solidaire, a pro-sovereignty party on the left, challenged the CAQ Leader by asking: “What are you?”

Mr. Legault’s small-c conservative policies don’t appeal to all Quebeckers. But then, the others, especially the PQ, have borrowed some of them to try to win voters.

In the last election, the CAQ won 27 per cent of the vote, but before this campaign began, the PQ had stolen a third of its supporters, both by shifting to the right, and with its charter of Quebec values – an idea that grew out of the “reasonable accommodations” debate started by the CAQ’s predecessor party, the Action Démocratique.

With Mr. Legault’s party behind in the polls, many Quebeckers may feel the choice for premier is between Ms. Marois and Mr. Couillard – even if there are signals they don’t like the choice. A recent focus on integrity questions dogging the other parties might help the CAQ, and Mr. Legault was widely considered the winner of Thursday’s debate. But it’s late in the game for a trailing third party. The other parties will go back to themes – Ms. Marois is selling the charter of values, while Mr. Couillard is likely to hammer the referendum – that weakened the CAQ before.

And now, Quebeckers have one more week to decide which potential outcome they most want to escape: the risk of referendum, the return to Liberal government, or the set of political choices they find frustrating.

Campbell Clark is The Globe’s chief political writer.

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