Separatists could decide on who governs Canada

* Bloc Quebecois the perennial favorite in Quebec

* Bloc strength makes majority government difficult

* Party cannot bring about independence on its own

By Randall Palmer

LAVAL, Quebec, April 7 (Reuters) – A party that seeks
independence for the French-speaking province of Quebec has
assumed a disproportionate role in the politics of Canada, the
country it would like to see broken up.

The perennially strong electoral showing of the Bloc
Quebecois in the province has made it all but impossible for
rival parties to win a majority in the federal Parliament,
allowing the separatist party to play the role of kingmaker.

“The Bloc has been very good in having Quebeckers believe
that they are defending their interests,” said Thierry Giasson,
political scientist at Laval University in Quebec City, noting
successes that included C$3.3 billion ($3.4 billion) in
payments as a price of Bloc support for the Conservative
federal government in 2007. “They do have a track record.”

That sort of campaigning is clear in the industrial
Montreal suburb of Laval, where popular Bloc candidate Nicole
Demers is running for a fourth term in the Canadian Parliament
ahead of the May 2 federal election.

Her campaign focuses on extracting the best possible deal
for the province, rather than campaigning on the party’s
official separatist program. She says other parties have
forgotten that as they try to win seats in Quebec.

“They defended Ottawa in Quebec. They didn’t defend Quebec
in Ottawa,” Demers said in her campaign office, located above a
strip mall on one of Laval’s main drags, across from several
blocks of low-rent housing.

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The Bloc was the third largest party in the outgoing
Canadian parliament with 47 of the 308 seats. The Conservative
government had 143 seats, not enough to rule without support
from at least one opposition party.

The Bloc’s support for independence gives it a stigma
nationally and among those Quebeckers who want their province
to stay in Canada. But Montreal-based pollster Jean-Marc Leger
said about 20 percent of Quebec federalists — people who
believe Quebec should stay part of Canada — see the Bloc as a
safe vote that will be good for the province.

In a 1995 referendum 49.4 percent of Quebeckers voted to
secede. Leger said support for independence has receded to a
stable 40 percent since then.

Rachid, a taxi driver from Morocco who did not want his
last name used, said he would support the ruling Conservatives
or the Bloc, even though he wants a united Canada.

“(The Bloc) defends the interests of Quebeckers. But I am
against Quebec independence,” he said.

There’s tactical voting too, and some voters admit a vote
for the Bloc might be the best way to prevent a Conservative
majority government.

“With a minority government, they can’t do what they want,”
Marcelle Desjardins said during a pause in her shopping at the
Centre Laval mall. She opposes separation but said the Bloc can
earn its keep by stopping a Conservative majority.

The sheer number of Bloc seats in the federal Parliament
effectively means another party must win 60 percent of seats
outside Quebec to win a majority government.

That’s not happened since 2000, when the Liberals won a
majority, thanks mostly to the existence of two competing
parties, which split the right-of-center vote.

Those two parties merged in 2003 to form the Conservatives.
Canada has has three minority governments since then, one
Liberal and two Conservative.

Those parties have their own policies in Quebec, and
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff on Wednesday poked fun of the
Bloc’s campaign slogan “Parlons Quebec,” or “Let’s talk
Quebec,” declaring that the Bloc is powerless to bring change.

“He can talk and chat and chat,” he said of veteran Bloc
leader Gilles Duceppe at a rally in the Montreal suburb of
Brossard. “But we are here to act.”

Conservative leader and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen
Harper has warned daily that unless he gets a majority,
Ignatieff will form Canada’s next government with support from
the leftist New Democrats and the Bloc.

If the Conservatives win the most seats but don’t get a
majority, the Bloc and New Democrats could indeed be in the
position of determining whether the Conservatives or Liberals
will form government, by deciding which party to back.

Ignatieff says the leader of the party with the most seats
should be Canada’s next prime minister and he has no plans for
a coalition.

Leger said the national parties were erring by not
tailoring their campaigns in the province to Quebec.

“The parties are stupid because they don’t connect and they
don’t try to connect with Quebeckers,” he said.
(Editing by Janet Guttsman)

Separatists could decide on who governs Canada