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Moderate to Become Premier in Quebec

September 30, 1985|KENNETH FREED | Times Staff Writer

MONTREAL — Pierre Marc Johnson, running on a platform that virtually abandons the goal of an independent Quebec, easily won the leadership Sunday of the Parti Quebecois, once the standard-bearer for sovereignty for the French-speaking province.

The 39-year-old Johnson defeated five other candidates in the race to succeed Rene Levesque as both leader of the PQ, as the party is popularly called, and as premier of Quebec. Since the party controls the provincial assembly, its leader automatically becomes the premier.

Wins 60% of Vote

Johnson, currently the justice minister, won about 60% of the estimated 80,000 votes cast in 122 electoral districts on the basis of a campaign that reduced independence to a vague goal in the distant future.

Party officials declared Johnson the formal winner when his total reached 41,900 votes. His nearest competitor, Manpower Minister Pauline Marois, received only 13,290 votes.

No more than about 55% of the party members actually voted in the unusual selection process, which replaced the traditional provincial convention in which delegates pick the leader.

The low turnout represented, at least in part, the dissatisfaction of those party members who resented Johnson's lack of support for independence as well as political and economic viewpoints to the right of the mildly socialist views of Levesque.

Tough Assembly Outlook

Although Johnson won the leadership battle easily, he faces a tough future in the assembly, where a steady erosion of seats has left the Parti Quebecois with only a one-member majority.

He is expected to call for a provincial election sometime in the fall, probably in November, in hopes that public interest in the 97-day leadership campaign can be translated into support for the party generally.

However, most recent public opinion polls put the PQ well behind the opposition Liberal Party, with the gap sometimes reaching more than 20%.

Johnson and his strategists feel, however, that this can be turned around. For the party's lack of popularity, they blame public dissatisfaction with Levesque, whose standing fell sharply in the final year of his nine years as leader.

If, however, it looks as if the Liberals' edge cannot be quickly reduced, he may put off an election until next spring, Johnson's aides say.

The new leader will base his election campaign on the same theory that carried him to victory Sunday: The population is more interested in restoring efficient government and reversing the province's economic decline than in pursuing the goal of independence.

Johnson, a native French speaker, is a handsome man with a slightly graying beard. He is a dynamic speaker, which gave him a clear advantage over his five opponents in the campaign for party leadership.

While Johnson basked in the attention of his victory Sunday, Levesque, who had announced late in June that he would retire, formally resigned his seat in the assembly.

He formally said goodby to the party in a cheerful yet emotional speech Friday night in which he pleaded for unity and told the thousands of party members not to forget the issue of independence.

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