Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois is now playing down sovereignty as an issue in the Quebec election campaign after witnessing a sudden surge in interest for national unity since media baron Pierre Karl Péladeau emerged on the scene as a separatist PQ candidate.
And while Ms. Marois campaigned in the Quebec City region, a new poll suggested the constant discussion of a possible referendum on Quebec independence has given Liberals a big boost in the area.
At a PQ rally in Lévis, just south of Quebec City, Ms. Marois reiterated that she has no intentions of holding a referendum on sovereignty until Quebeckers are ready for one.
She accused Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard of running a negative campaign against the PQ. "Philippe Couillard has said for months that he wanted to campaign on the economy. He has now become obsessed with the constitution and referendums…He is trying to scare Quebeckers, he is trying to frighten them by using the same old Liberal tactics," Ms. Marois told 200 party supporters.
"I'm telling Quebeckers not to be fooled. After the election of the Parti Québécois we will implement our economic plan. We will adopt a Charter of Quebec Values," she said, referring to her minority government's controversial bill that would prohibit public servants from wearing overt religious symbols.
The Léger Marketing poll conducted in Quebec City showed Liberals sitting at 39 per cent support – a rise of seven percentage points compared to the last poll of the region published by the same company March 5. Much of the gain came at the expense of the Coalition Avenir Québec, which dropped five percentage points to 19 per cent. Parti Québécois support remained relatively stable at 32 per cent.
The poll was conducted after Mr. Péladeau, a media magnate who once led the push for a new arena and NHL franchise in the provincial capital, became a superstar candidate for the PQ on Sunday. He also declared his eagerness to achieve Quebec independence, driving the issue to the top of the agenda ever since.
The poll for local radio station 93.3 FM on March 11 and 12 surveyed 643 people and is said to have a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
The poll seems to confirm that Mr. Péladeau's arrival has polarized the race, and likely pushed Quebeckers who fear revival of referendum talk toward the Liberals.
While Mr. Péladeau has stopped taking questions about sovereignty, Ms. Marois insisted Thursday she was not seeking a majority government to hold a referendum but to manage Quebec's affairs.
"We are in an election campaign. We are not in a campaign on the future of Quebec. When Quebeckers go to the polls on April 7 they will vote for a government," Ms. Marois said during a news conference with Mr. Péladeau standing by her side while campaigning in the Quebec City region. "We have a economic vision…a vision that offers a very real project to the Quebec population. And that is what this is all about right now."
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard suggested a polarizing electorate may not be limited to Quebec City, but the provincial capital is not a great barometer for the province. In the 1995, Quebec City voted Yes, but it vastly underperformed separatist expectations and has traditionally been relatively hostile territory for the PQ. In the Quebec City region, the Coalition Avenir Québec has the dominant position.
Mr. Couillard again drove home his message Thursday that while the PQ dreams of a separatist referendum, his campaign is rooted in hard economic reality. And as he has done throughout the week, he threw out a barb on a potential referendum, hoping to keep Ms. Marois on the topic again.
When asked about the wording of a potential referendum question – the kind of hypothetical politicians usually try to avoid – he pointed to the upcoming referendum in Scotland.
"The example of the United Kingdom is very interesting: do you want Scotland to become an independent country? Yes or no," he said. "Now there won't be a referendum and no question because there will be a Liberal government in Quebec."
Mr. Couillard addressed Ms. Marois's earlier suggestion that Quebeckers could have some kind of dual citizenship and keep their Canadian passports.
"Every arrangement between two parties require consent of two parties," he said. "She's trying to separate Quebec from Canada by suggesting there will be no consequences.
"Nine billion in equalization? A detail. Canadian passport? It's beautiful, we'll keep it. Currency? Oh sure, we'll keep it... I'm sorry, it's amateurish," he said.
There were clear signs that the PQ wanted to push the sovereignty issue out of the limelight and focus more on the economy. With concerns that the campaign could become about the next referendum rather than about electing a government, Mr. Péladeau steered away from a question about Quebec independence.
"We are in Quebec City to talk about the economy and entrepreneurship. And that is what I intend to do," he said after being asked if he was in politics to break up Canada.
The vast holdings by Quebecor, in which Mr. Péladeau has controlling interest, has also become a delicate issue for the PQ in the campaign.
A report in the Journal de Montréal, owned by Quebecor Media, showed that one of Quebecor's companies called Nurun has several millions dollars in Quebec government contracts.
The computer company received $13.5-million in government contracts in the 2012-2013 fiscal year. Ms. Marois argued that the firm was awarded the contracts after making the lowest bid following the rules under the province's strict tendering process. As long as the rules are followed there was nothing to be concerned about, she said.
When the question of potential favouritism involving Quebecor companies was put to Mr. Péladeau during the news conference, Ms. Marois stepped in and gently brushed him aside in order to take the question.
"The rules are set by our laws…and followed through under administrative procedures in which we do not interfere," Ms. Marois said.
Ms. Marois also kept Mr. Péladeau at bay when he was asked about changing the conflict of interest rules. Some experts have recommended that the rules should be made tougher to avoid potential or perceived interference in the awarding of government contracts to Quebecor-owned companies should Mr. Péladeau become a minister in a PQ government.
Since becoming a candidate, Mr. Péladeau has faced attacks from the other parties calling on him to sell his shares in Quebecor because of the potential conflict of interest it may create. Mr. Péladeau has refused to sell, saying he will leave it the hands of the Ethics Commissionner who will be called upon to make a final ruling on the matter should Mr. Péladeau be elected to the National Assembly.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said Quebec Liberals hold the majority of seats in the Quebec City region. This is the corrected version.