Quebec political leaders ready themselves for expected election call

MONTREAL – Quebec politicians put on their pre-electoral game faces Tuesday, hours before a widely anticipated election call that Premier Pauline Marois hopes will bring her a majority mandate.

Riding high in the polls, the Parti Quebecois leader is expected to call a snap election Wednesday to send the province to the ballot box on April 7.

Marois’ main opponents were already warming up the campaign trail Tuesday, criticizing the PQ’s record and practising their pitches to voters.

Rookie Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said he felt like he was playing hockey and the playoffs were about to begin.

“We’re only hours away from the election call — it appears obvious,” Couillard, the national assembly’s Opposition leader, told reporters in Quebec City.

“I’m putting together my attacking lines. My centres and wingers … have already been identified.”

He said his party, unlike the governing PQ, will focus on what he calls the true concerns of Quebecers: education, health, jobs and the economy.

Couillard, who replaced former premier Jean Charest as Liberal leader last year, reiterated his dislike for the Marois government’s controversial-yet-popular secularism charter, describing it as a plan that divides Quebecers.

Polls, however, have suggested the values charter has been a boon to Marois’ minority government, which appears to be within reach of a majority mandate.

Marois made it clear Tuesday night the charter of values will be key to her campaign.

“We will adopt a charter that affirms the Quebec values of equality between men and women,” Marois said at a nomination meeting in Quebec City. “We will do it.”

The PQ secularism project would ban public employees from wearing ostentatious religious symbols, like the Muslim veil, at work.

Supporters of the proposal call it a tool to limit gender discrimination and to shield the province from what has been described as encroaching fundamentalism. Opponents have painted it as a political ploy that shifts attention away from more pressing matters, like the economy.

Even though he agrees with part of the charter, third-party leader Francois Legault accused Marois on Tuesday of planning to run her whole campaign on the document alone.

The leader of the right-of-centre Coalition for Quebec’s Future party said he would support a watered-down version of the PQ proposal, one that would only place the restrictions on public workers in authority positions, such as teachers, police officer and judges.

But above all, Legault said the government should stay focused on kick-starting the Quebec economy.

“Right now, Quebec is living beyond its means,” Legault told reporters.

“Therefore we’re in a situation that if we don’t change our direction … we will hit the wall.”

The PQ has taken steps to dull these kinds of attacks from opponents, who have repeatedly accused the party of mismanaging the economy.

The Marois government made a series of multimillion-dollar public investments in recent months, including cash for a new cement plant in the Gaspe region and an oil-exploration project on Anticosti Island.

Last month, Marois’ team also presented what it called a “responsible” budget filled with figures it says point to the PQ’s economic accomplishments since coming to power in September 2012 after defeating Charest’s Liberals.

The document, which would not go to vote if an election were called this week, projected a $1.75-billion shortfall in 2014-15, a prediction that backed away from an earlier PQ promise to balance the books in 2013-14.

The party’s zero-deficit target has now been put off until 2015-16, a change that prompted Fitch Ratings to downgrade Quebec’s outlook in December to negative from stable.

An election call would mean the Marois government believes it’s done enough to win over voters.

The PQ holds 54 seats in the legislature, nine short of the majority-government benchmark of 63.

Meanwhile, the Liberals have 49 ridings, the Coalition has 18, the left-leaning Quebec solidaire has two and two MNAs sit as Independants.

In recent weeks, Couillard has repeated a warning to the electorate that electing the PQ to a majority mandate would give Marois a green light to call a referendum on Quebec independence.

Marois, however, has so far refused to commit herself to holding a referendum if she wins a majority, and has said such a vote must happen at the appropriate moment.

Instead, she has promised to present a “white paper” on the province’s future, a document that would consult Quebecers on the merits of holding another vote on sovereignty. The province voted against sovereignty in two referendums: 1980 and 1995.

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