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Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois speaks to reporters during a campaign stop Thursday, August 23, 2012 in Montreal.

Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Parti Québécois continued to fuel the sense it is improvising its way through the election campaign, retreating from its proposal to allow citizens to initiate a third referendum on Quebec sovereignty.

The climb-down on the issue at the heart of the PQ platform followed a similar flip-flop on the rights of non-French speakers to run for municipal office, and confusion surrounding the release of its fiscal framework.

The Sept. 4 election is shaping up to be a three-way race, with all parties still hoping to come out on top.

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The Quebec Liberals welcomed the controversy surrounding Quebec sovereignty, especially after the issue sparked a war of words between the PQ and the other main party in the province, the Coalition Avenir Québec.

With a smile, Liberal Leader Jean Charest revelled at the "quarrel in the sovereigntist family," which could help him strengthen his support among federalist Quebeckers.

When the campaign began, Mr. Charest was expected to run against the upheaval caused by students who were backed by the PQ. In an evening rally in front of 700 supporters, he threw referendum confusion in the PQ ranks and the attempt at neutrality by the CAQ Leader François Legault into one big threat of chaos.

"We have a strong economy when the economies around us aren't doing so well. In a time of instability, do we really want to add on another layer of instability?" Mr. Charest told a boisterous crowd in Laval, a Montreal suburb in a ring of swing ridings.

Mr. Legault, on the other hand, is hoping to win votes among Quebeckers who are tired of the Liberals, but do not want to elect a sovereigntist government. In a debate with PQ Leader Pauline Marois this week, he warned that PQ "radicals" could force a citizen-initiated referendum on sovereignty. Mr. Legault compared the situation to a herd of suicidal caribous heading over a cliff.

On Thursday, Ms. Marois scrambled to clarify her party's position, stating that while a PQ government would allow citizens to try and initiate a referendum on sovereignty, the Quebec National Assembly would have a veto over whether to proceed with the vote.

"I would have control over the timing of the referendum," Ms. Marois said. "The government and ultimately the National Assembly could accept or refuse the people's demand. ... I will always have the possibility to decide."

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Her position contradicted comments she made last February that the government would be required to hold a referendum on sovereignty if 15 per cent of eligible voters – about 850,000 people – signed a petition in favour of a vote.

In an effort to draw attention away from the controversy over the referendum strategy, Ms. Marois announced Thursday evening that, if elected, a PQ government would "reimburse a minimum of $5.5-billion on the debt." The money would come from the Generations Fund set up by the Liberal government.

Quebec's debt is estimated to be higher than $165-billion.

Ms. Marois will outline her debt-reduction plan on Friday when she unveils her financial framework detailing how a PQ government would pay for the election promises made during the campaign.

At the rally in Quebec City, playwright and producer Robert Lepage took the stage to support Ms. Marois. He called on the 1,500 rank-and-file party supporters at the event to fight for a PQ victory in order to ensure social justice for Quebec.

The referendum strategy flip-flop was not unlike the one taken earlier this week over the PQ's proposed Quebec citizenship bill. On Tuesday, Ms. Marois said it would require all citizens wanting to run for public office in Quebec to have adequate knowledge of French.

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Facing an uproar over the constitutionality of the proposal, the PQ moved to clarify its position, saying the requirement would only apply to Canadians moving to Quebec after the Quebec citizenship bill had been passed.

The PQ has also come under fire for its refusal to release its fiscal framework ahead of the four leaders' debates. The party had planned to release a full costing of its platform on Saturday, but has now scheduled the event on Friday.

Mr. Legault said that whether he wins the election or ends up in opposition, he will do everything in his power to prevent a third referendum on Quebec sovereignty. He said a defeat of the "Yes" camp in an eventual referendum would be a disaster for all Quebeckers.

"Everybody will lose if there is a referendum," said the leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec at a news conference. "Even the federalists will lose bargaining power if there is a third "no." It's not good for federalists, it's not good for sovereigntists."

Mr. Legault insisted he will vote "no" if the Parti Québécois does win the election and decides to hold a referendum. He refused to state, however, whether he would actively participate or lead the "No" camp, calling the debate "purely hypothetical."

Still, Mr. Legault accepted the notion that a simple majority would be enough to break up the country.

"Democracy is 50-per-cent plus one," he said.

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About the Authors
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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