Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois was determined to focus the first day of her election campaign on jobs and the economy but was quickly overtaken by the more thorny issue of sovereignty.
Within hours of the election call Wednesday for the April 7 vote, all three main party leaders staked out the turf they will try to defend over a 33-day campaign. Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard accused Ms. Marois of trying to hide her true agenda to bring Quebec toward an independence vote.
Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault accused Ms. Marois of hiding behind identity issues raised by her proposed Charter of Values to avoid talking about her economic record.
For her part, Ms. Marois avoided questions and met with a small group of workers outside the Alcoa aluminum smelter in Deschambault, just east of Quebec City. The PQ minority government signed an agreement last week that awarded Alcoa preferential hydro rates for 15 years. In return, the company promised to modernize their facilities and consolidate the current 3,000 jobs at its three Quebec smelters, including 540 at the Deschambault facility.
"This is the reason I am in politics and that is to make sure people get good jobs and a better quality of life," said Ms. Marois, who led a minority government at dissolution.
Mr. Couillard faced 30 minutes of questions after his launch speech, where he said the PQ is reinforcing division in Quebec with one goal in mind. "It's a certainty. It's a certainty. Mme. Marois is asking for a majority. Why? To have a referendum," Mr. Couillard said.
The local PQ candidate accompanying Ms. Marois, Hugues Genois, 45, a local businessman and political neophyte, was more than eager to speak out on issues his leader wanted to avoid.
He said he doesn't see the need for a PQ majority government to rush a sovereignty agenda, as Quebeckers were not yet ready to debate it.
"The referendum will come when we are ready," Mr. Genois said. "Not in the first [mandate]. We can wait and see what information Ms. Marois gives us and decide in due course…I am sovereignist in due course."
The PQ strategy is aimed at consolidating pro-sovereignty supporters without alienating soft nationalist supporters who may fear another referendum on sovereignty. Parti Québécois insiders say they fear the sovereignty issue could become toxic with voters if the message isn't handled properly.
The PQ is gambling that majority support for its controversial secular charter, which prohibits public servants from wearing overt religious symbols, will give the party enough votes to form a majority government. The issue has caused havoc for Mr. Couillard, who hesitated before taking a firm position against the charter – a delay that caused concern and dissent within his own ranks.
The campaign will focus on approximately 25 predominantly francophone ridings mainly in the suburbs around Montreal, in central Quebec as well as the Quebec City region. The PQ will be aiming to win back several of the seats it lost at the hands of Mr. Legault, whose popularity has dropped significantly since the September 2012 election when he took 25 per cent of the vote.
Mr. Legault's third party will struggle for attention in Quebec's polarized political environment, especially if referendum plans dominate for 33 days.
In his Quebec City campaign launch, Mr. Legault was the first leader to make clear promises. He said Quebec's fixed election date, which was sidestepped by Ms. Marois for Wednesday's election call, would have full force under a CAQ government. He also promised an independent budget officer to verify government spending plans.
Mr. Legault, a former business executive whose main agenda is cutting spending and taxes and improving Quebec's business environment, said Ms. Marois will try to focus debate on identity to avoid her weaknesses.
"She will campaign on the charter because she wants to hide her terrible economic record," he said.
A public opinion poll released Wednesday showed the PQ leading the pack with 37 per cent support among decided voters, slightly ahead of the Liberals at 35 per cent, the CAQ at 15 per cent and the combative left-wing pro-sovereignty Quebec Solidaire at 8 per cent.
Despite what appears to be a close race between the PQ and the Liberals, the poll conducted by Leger Marketing for the Journal de Montréal showed the PQ with 45 per cent support among francophone voters, a 22-point lead on the Liberals. Such a result on election day would translate into a majority government for the PQ since most seats are decided by the province's predominantly francophone voters.
The poll was conducted among a group of 1,502 Internet participants between February 28 and March 3. The accuracy of an Internet survey cannot be measured using standard polling techniques.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Pauline Marois had dissolved the Quebec legislature; in fact, she made that request to the Lieutenant-Governor, who is expected to dissolve the legislature.