The Parti Québécois is lunging into the Quebec election campaign with a plan to focus on the economy and avoid the thorny matter of sovereignty, although the subject of national unity was inescapable on the first day.
In a rare move, PQ leader Pauline Marois refused to hold a news conference and take questions from the media after calling an election on Wednesday and inviting voters to give her party a clear majority in an April 7 vote.
The first few days of the campaign are crucial for every party, but even more so for the PQ, since polls indicate it is in a position to move from a minority government to a majority. Some PQ strategists fear support for the party may have peaked and that spontaneous remarks from Ms. Marois could derail the strategy.
But even though Ms. Marois was determined to keep the focus on jobs and the economy when she met with workers at the Alcoa Inc. aluminum smelter in Deschambault, the campaign turned, almost inevitably, to the question of whether a PQ government would hold a referendum on sovereignty after two PQ candidates addressed the issue.
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard seized on the remarks to argue that Ms. Marois wants a majority government to hold a vote on sovereignty.
"It's a certainty" Ms. Marois will call a referendum, Mr. Couillard said, even though the PQ leader has promised only public hearings and a white paper on the political future of Quebec. "Mme Marois is asking for a majority. Why? To have a referendum."
PQ candidate Hugues Genois said earlier that Quebeckers are not ready for a referendum."The referendum will come when we are ready … in due course." Another PQ candidate, Alexis Deschênes, argued just the opposite, telling supporters in Trois-Rivières that the fight for sovereignty was just beginning.
Ms. Marois insisted that if the PQ wins a majority, she will recall the National Assembly on May 6 to adopt the controversial secular charter bill, which would ban public service employees from wearing overt religious symbols.
"We want a majority to be able to adopt the charter because the opposition has stopped us," she told cheering supporters in Trois-Rivières.
Ms. Marois promised to answer questions from the media "in the days to come."
The most surprising development on Day 1 did not come from the hustings but from the headquarters of Quebec's corruption inquiry, far away from the campaign buses, where Justice France Charbonneau announced she will postpone hearings into allegations of impropriety in provincial political financing and the awarding of Transport Ministry contracts during the campaign.
The decision was a reversal for the inquiry, which said it would carry on amid election speculation last fall.
"Being totally apolitical and independent, we don't want to risk that our hearings could be dragged into the political arena," the inquiry said in a statement on Wednesday morning.
Both the PQ and the Liberals have been embarrassed by revelations from the inquiry in the past year. Ms. Marois did not address the decision, and Mr. Couillard would only say it was Ms. Charbonneau's decision to make.
François Legault, whose Coalition Avenir Québec has gone relatively untainted, admitted he is disappointed. His party was hoping revelations at the inquiry involving possible illegal party financing would boost support for the CAQ. "It's really too bad," he said. "People will have to vote without knowing exactly what the two old parties were up to."
Mr. Legault's third party will struggle for attention in Quebec's polarized political environment, especially if the possibility of a sovereignty referendum dominates the campaign.
In his Quebec City campaign launch, Mr. Legault was the first leader to make promises, saying he would appoint 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 weakness on economy.
"She will campaign on the charter because she wants to hide her terrible economic record," he said.