Undeterred by their referendum defeat, Quebec separatists cleared the way Wednesday for Lucien Bouchard - the charismatic leader who rallied a floundering campaign to the brink of victory - to take over the provincial government.
Bouchard, who remained coy about his plans, could breathe new life into the independence movement if he leaves his seat in Parliament to replace resigning Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau. As soon as he learned of the separatists’ narrow loss in Monday’s secession referendum, Bouchard vowed to launch another breakaway attempt.
At a dramatic news conference Tuesday, Parizeau, 65, announced he would resign next month. He cited the defeat as the reason, but he also had come under harsh criticism from his colleagues for blaming the loss on non-Francophone immigrants.
The separatists lost Monday by 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent. About 90 percent of Quebec’s immigrants voted against separation, while 60 percent of the French-speaking majority voted for it.
La Presse, a French-language Montreal daily, said pressure on Bouchard from party militants was so intense that he had no choice but to take over from Parizeau as premier and Parti Quebecois leader.
Bouchard conferred with his parliamentary colleagues late Wednesday and scheduled a news conference for mid-morning today, though he did not promise to announcement his decision then.
Other possible contenders said they would defer to Bouchard if he sought the two posts.
“It’s the man who can best serve the cause who should be the successor,” said Deputy Premier Bernard Landry. “In everyone’s eyes, it’s Lucien Bouchard.”
The Parti Quebecois, which took power in Quebec last year, chooses its leader through a vote of all 150,000 members. The party leadership council, which sets dates for such elections, is not scheduled to meet until Dec. 9, but could move up the session.
Federalists fear Bouchard could be an even more formidable foe than Parizeau, and they assailed him for threatening to initiate a new secession campaign so soon after the divisive referendum.
“Enough is enough,” said Daniel Johnson, leader of the federalist Liberal Party in Quebec. “The last thing that Quebeckers want is another referendum. They want a government that governs.”
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, in a speech Wednesday night in Toronto, accused the separatists of seeking “referendum after referendum until they win, and then there are no more referendums.”
“This country has the right to political stability,” Chretien said. “It’s my duty to ensure it.”
He urged his audience of business executives to invest in Quebec to “show them Canada can work.”
Quebec law prohibits two referendums being held on any one topic during a single government’s term of office. Bouchard could try to amend that law to pave the way for another referendum, but even some Parti Quebecois leaders feel the first task should be to tackle Quebec’s financial problems.
“To have only one referendum during each term is a wise choice,” said Public Security Minister Serge Menard. “It requires a lot of energy from politicians and citizens.”
In the aftermath of the referendum, Chretien promised Parliament would work quickly on political changes that might satisfy Quebec nationalists.
Chretien said in his Toronto speech that those changes would include formal recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society” and a commitment that the constitution would not be amended without Quebec’s consent.