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Politics Quebec Premier Marois will start electoral race with clear front-runner status

Quebec Premier and Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois waves to supporters as she enters a nomination meeting with Charlebourg candidate Dominique Payette, right, on Tuesday, March 4, 2014 in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

In Quebec, it is known as the rule of alternance: a powerful and predictable cycle started in the 1970s whereby the province undergoes a seismic shift in leadership about every nine years between the pro-independence Parti Québécois and the federalist Liberals.

PQ Premier Pauline Marois, first elected with a weak minority in 2012, is expected to call an election Wednesday to seek a majority mandate and complete the job of taking the PQ's turn at full control of the levers of power. She will start her campaign with clear front-runner status and with a main adversary, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, who has struggled to find his footing after a lacklustre start.

The election will be fought on issues of identity, such as the proposed charter of values and PQ plans to toughen language laws, along with universal topics such as health care, the economy and public finances. But inevitably the question will return to the matter that holds the highest stakes for Quebec and Canada.

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Ms. Marois has promised to hold a vast consultation on Quebec's road to independence, including public hearings and an eventual white paper. That may sound like a nation-building exercise, but her silence on a referendum makes her position on sovereignty the weakest of any PQ leader who has started a fresh cycle in power.

As PQ cabinet minister Yves-François Blanchet said recently, the PQ has never had a turn in government that didn't include a referendum. René Lévesque first brought the PQ to power in 1976 promising a vote on sovereignty-association, and held a losing vote four years later. Jacques Parizeau returned the PQ to office in 1994 and delivered on his promised referendum in 1995, producing a narrow sovereigntist defeat.

When Mr. Blanchet's comment quickly made the rounds of social media, PQ minister Jean-François Lisée, a key adviser for the Yes side in 1995, illustrated deep nationalist ambivalence on when – and if – the question of a vote on Quebec independence would follow a PQ majority. "He never said which mandate," Mr. Lisée said, making sure the electorate doesn't see an immediate referendum threat.

The PQ is not alone in trying to play down the urgency of the national question. Mr. Couillard set aside sovereignty in his final precampaign news conference Wednesday, saying he will concentrate on other issues, such as health care, education and the economy.

The charter of values and its restrictive dress code on public employees will not be top of the agenda either, Mr. Couillard said. "It's certain that project brings a lot of controversy, especially because of the impact of the discrimination that comes with it. But it will not be the issue of the campaign."

François Legault, who will struggle to match his Coalition Avenir Québec's 2012 performance of 19 seats, also hammers home questions of economy and cutting government.

But as every Quebec campaign comes down the stretch, the PQ is inevitably dogged about the independence plan, and the Liberals feed those questions saying the PQ has a hidden agenda to tear the country apart. It's a Liberal tactic as old as the PQ, and there's no reason to think the 2014 campaign will be different.

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In an interview on the Radio-Canada political program Les Coulisses de Pouvoir, Mr. Lisée elaborated further on the vagueness of the PQ sovereignty plan. "Will it be in the first mandate, the second, the third? I don't know. We will go down this path with Quebeckers, but we promise to respect their will," he said.

The will of Quebeckers has been relatively clear for years now. A CROP poll published in late February put support for sovereignty at 41 per cent, among the higher levels of the past four years. The No side of the ledger is more striking, and damning for the independence movement: A solid block of 59 per cent would vote No. Opposition to Quebec independence has rarely sunk below 60 per cent in the past four years of CROP polls.

Ms. Marois's plan for public hearings and a white paper is hardly material to whip up support. Her position is closer to the feeble evasions offered by late-cycle PQ premiers like Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry, who preferred to wait for "winning conditions," than the clear commitments of Mr. Lévesque and Mr. Parizeau.

Even if popular support for independence rose dramatically to the 50-50 level in polls, there is some dispute whether Ms. Marois could even claim a mandate to hold a referendum, with her lack of campaign clarity. Ms. Marois turns 65 later this month, and will already be on her second mandate if she wins. She will be into her 70s if a referendum were held in a third mandate – a scenario evoked by Mr. Lisée.

But there's plenty of time for the PQ to exploit unforeseen events, build support for sovereignty and even hold an unusual end-of-cycle referendum. According to the usual pattern, the next Liberal turn won't come until around 2021.

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