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Pauline Marois says the PQ is just being cautious when it claims that there was an influx of illegal anglophone voters in five ridings.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

What were they trying to do? In less than 48 hours, the Parti Québécois went from raising the spectre of Ontario students stealing the election to insisting that, in the absence of any evidence to buttress their allegations, they were merely guilty of being cautious.

After suggesting on the weekend that there was an influx of illegal anglophone voters in five ridings, the PQ was caught flat-footed by Chief Electoral Officer Jacques Drouin, who said that there was no abnormal rise in registrations in those electoral districts.

By Monday, PQ Leader Pauline Marois was insisting that it was legitimate to raise concerns while Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard suggested that the whole affair showed his foes are in disarray.

The madcap episode could have stemmed from three possible situations:

The PQ was trying to play wedge politics

After coming close to calling an election last winter, Ms. Marois committed to a spring vote only after her party inched up in the polls, thanks to the polarizing debate over the Charter of Values, which is more popular among francophones in key rural or suburban ridings.

As stories about anglophone university students trying to register to vote emerged last week, the PQ sounded as though it was picking at old wounds, again playing to deep-seated anxieties about outsiders.

"Will the Quebec election be stolen by people from Ontario and the rest of Canada?" Bertrand St-Arnaud, the Justice Minister and PQ candidate in Chambly, said Sunday. "The coming week is crucial for democracy."

The issue mines a rich history of electoral fraud.

Both sides have accused each other of cheating during in the razor-tight 1995 referendum.

On Monday, Ms. Marois also mentioned the Montreal riding of Anjou, where Liberal MNA Jean-Sébastien Lamoureux resigned n 2001 after one of his organizers was found guilty of setting up an illegal vote-buying scam in the 1998 election.

Meanwhile, former Liberal minister Christos Sirros, now a television pundit, recalled that outgoing PQ education minister Marie Malavoy once resigned from the cabinet because she had voted in the 1992 referendum, as well as federal and provincial elections, before she had obtained her Canadian citizenship.

They were trying to rally the troops

Political observers have quickly noted that, of the five ridings where the PQ claimed there was a problem with bogus wannabe voters, two are Liberal strongholds (Saint-Henri-Sainte-Anne and Westmount-Saint-Louis) while the race in Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques is mainly between the PQ and the pro-sovereignty party Québec Solidaire.

Only in Saint-François, where Péquiste Réjean Hébert won by 65 ballots, would an influx of new voters from nearby Bishop's University make a difference.

So what was at stake was something broader than those five ridings.

The PQ, which started the campaign with the polls showing it is within reach of a majority government, has not had a strong campaign, with the latest surveys suggesting that it is the Liberals who have had the momentum.

The stories about anglophones rallying to counter the PQ threat would have been a reminder to Ms. Marois's party that their rivals are more motivated. The alarm issued on the weekend by the party's upper cadres was a call to supporters not to be complacent.

While insisting that she had not intended to question the integrity of the Chief Electoral Officer, Ms. Marois said her party would "continue to be vigilant on this issue."

They panicked

The odder side effect of the PQ's weekend gambit is that it brought back memories of the 1995 referendum acrimony.

It is an old axiom of Quebec politics that the PQ should play down talk about sovereignty and a referendum during election campaigns.

Instead, this spring Ms. Marois's campaign repeatedly displayed a lack of discipline as it kept veering into the issue, first in the unveiling of star candidate Pierre-Karl Péladeau, then in the leader's own musings about what would happen after a Yes vote.

Ms. Marois tried again to readjust the message, saying on Monday that she would focus on the Liberals' record on ethics.

There was no explanation why the PQ's top ministers started talking about Ontarians hijacking the election without first checking with the Chief Electoral Officer to corroborate their allegations.

Mr. Drouin said he would not identify which party had sent his office a list wrongly claiming that there were problems in the five ridings. The newspaper Le Devoir reported Monday that the party that had contacted Mr. Drouin was the PQ.

To explain her party's hasty reaction on the electoral scare, Ms. Marois alluded to an old French proverb, "chat échaudé craint l'eau froide," roughly translated as once bitten, twice shy.

Meanwhile, Mr. Couillard was more than happy to talk again about a referendum, saying the PQ is "grabbing onto anything that passes. 'Hey, let's try this. Maybe we can scare people.' This is panic."