This post has been updated. See note below.
When the separatist Parti Quebecois burst on the political scene 40 years ago, financial institutions and global corporate headquarters fled Montreal for neighboring Ontario in fear of the economic disaster predicted if Quebec were to secede from the Canadian federation.
In 1995, when the party again gained control of the provincial government, voters defeated a referendum on separation by such a small margin -- the difference was 1 percentage point -- the province again suffered a loss of business investments that killed jobs, dropped property values and depressed the Canadian dollar for much of that decade.
So why, in an age of relative prosperity that is the envy of the recession-racked world, are Quebec voters again surging to the side of Parti Quebecois and its nationalist platform for more sovereignty and French language dominance? As the Ottawa Citizen warned in an editorial Tuesday, a victory for Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois in Tuesday's legislative elections would give her "a chance to turn her province into the Greece of North America and slow Canadian progress for many years."
Votes were still too close to call in some hotly contested districts, or "ridings" as they are known in the province, but Canadian Broadcasting Co. declared Parti Quebecois the winner and Marois poised to become Quebec's first female premier. Incumbent Jean Charest and his Liberal Party colleagues lagged by at least 10 seats in the winner-takes-all district contests. Parti Quebecois could end up heading a minority government, though, as a relatively strong third-place finisher, the Coalition Avenir Quebec, appeared to deprive the separatists from getting at least 63 seats for an outright majority.
[Updated 9:30 a.m. Sept. 4: In a possible sign of the tensions that can flare on the separation issue, shots were fired during Marois's victory speech shortly after midnight, prompting security officers to whisk the party leader off the stage. Police said they were questioning a man detained at the scene who was wearing ski mask and blue bathrobe. Marois was unhurt, but a 48-year-old man was killed and another man wounded, Quebec police reported.]
Support for separation has fallen dramatically since two previous referendums found insufficient voter interest in going it alone. A 1980 ballot measure failed with only 40% in favor, and the vote 15 years later narrowly missed with 49.5% backing. Today, only about 28% of the electorate wants to separate from Canada, according to a recent poll published by La Presse of Montreal.
What has brought voters back to the Parti Quebecois fold, says McGill University law and politics professor Daniel Weinstock, is Canada's long tradition of "democratic alternance in power," a cyclical sweeping out of the governing echelons.
"After three or four terms in power, a party gets complacent. Corruption sets in and it gets too cozy with people it shouldn’t be getting cozy with. About a quarter of Parti Quebecois voters say they just want change," said Weinstock, alluding to a scandal involving the building trades and organized crime that eroded support for Charest and the Liberal Party.
Quebec has also been roiled this year by massive student unrest in protest of tuition increases, which flared into ugly confrontation between police and demonstrators. Thousands were arrested this spring, and new restrictions imposed on public demonstrations have angered free-speech advocates across Canada.
More than an opportunity to raise the separatist cause again, Marois has appealed to voters with populist pledges to boost taxes on wealthy individuals and charge higher mining royalties on multinational extractors to raise revenue for public projects. She has also called for making it more difficult for foreign companies to buy out Canadian competitors, like the $1.8-billion offer from home improvement giant Lowe's of North Carolina for Quebec-based chain Rona Inc. that could imperil thousands of Canadian jobs, mostly in the Francophone province.
Under pressure from party hardliners, Marois has demanded provincial autonomy in foreign affairs and immigration policy and called for making French the exclusive language of education at the community college level. French already has that status in primary and secondary school teaching.
Marois made clear on the campaign trail that getting Quebec's finances in order would be the first priority if her party regains power. But she also reiterated Parti Quebecois' separatist aim in vowing to hold a referendum "tomorrow morning" if polls show majority support.
Finn Poschmann, vice president of research at the C.D. Howe Institute, an economic and social policy think tank in Toronto, says separation makes no sense economically for Quebec and Marois has said she would push for a third vote on it only when the measure is assured of passage.
Still, the notion of independence has an emotional appeal for many in Quebec, Poschmann said.
"It's the sovereigntist ideal, that if only the province could have more control over its destiny that everything will get better," he said. "There are going to be significant groups of people, particularly in rural areas and among youth, who are true believers in the separation program. But that is not the dominant force in Quebec politics."
Canadian markets and currency have weathered the latest Parti Quebecois rise without the nerves and panic of previous political shifts in Quebec, probably because analysts see little imminent threat of another secession vote, said Poschmann.
But he points out that the campaign promises made by Marois -- higher income taxes for big earners and $1 billion in new public spending -- would be enough to damp investors' enthusiasm for Quebec and Canada as a whole even if the separation issue has been relegated to the back burner.
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Photo: Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois is whisked off stage as she delivered her victory speech in Quebec on Tuesday. Police were not immediately able to provide details but party organizers informed the crowd that there had been an explosive noise and they needed to clear the auditorium. Credit: Paul Chiasson/Associated Press