MONTREAL - As the Parti Quebecois backtracked Monday on the notion of a stolen Quebec election, the Liberals accused them of engaging in a "sideshow" to avoid referendum talk that has been the focus of campaign discourse.
PQ Leader Pauline Marois defended her party's decision to raise questions about alleged irregularities in voter registration that surfaced in the media and which were quickly proven to be unfounded.
Marois said Monday the PQ was duty bound to raise the issue with Elections Quebec once the allegations were made and a trio of PQ candidates came out to state fears of the election being stolen by the rest of Canada.
They called on Quebec's chief electoral officer to investigate fully.
Within hours of the plea on Sunday, the province's chief electoral officer said that reports of an abnormal influx of English-speakers and other non-francophones trying to register to vote in the April 7 election were false.
On Monday, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard called the PQ's move an act of intimidation against an independent body.
"This is a sideshow," Couillard said. "And it's a succession of sideshows ... that is only destined to divide Quebecers among each other and put them in an environment where they (the PQ) could have a referendum. Quebecers don't want a referendum."
Marois said Monday she's satisfied the situation is under control after hearing Elections Quebec boss Jacques Drouin speak late Sunday.
The PQ stepped up on Sunday following a few days of media reports about English-speaking university students trying to register to vote. Some students complained they were turned away even though they believed they had the necessary documentation.
Bertrand St-Arnaud, who served as Marois' justice minister, told a news conference on Sunday he didn't want the election to be "stolen by people from Ontario and the rest of Canada."
St-Arnaud explained Monday the comments stemmed from media reports.
Montreal's Le Devoir reported that Mathieu Vandal, the head of the election revision board for a downtown Montreal riding, resigned on Friday and went public with concerns that an increased number of non-francophones were attempting to register and weren't being adequately screened.
On Sunday, the Quebecor-owned Le Journal de Montreal described an attempt by "hundreds of Ontario students" to register so they could vote against the PQ.
Quebecor's majority shareholder is PQ star candidate Pierre Karl Peladeau.
An Elections Quebec spokesman said Vandal's comments were "alarmist" and had "exaggerated" the situation. The numbers suggested there were no signs of an irregular increase in voter registration.
St-Arnaud's strong statements about stealing the vote were dramatically toned down on Monday, but he defended the PQ response given the integrity of the voting process was being questioned.
"In light of everything that was conveyed in the past 72 hours, there were concerns, and I think they were legitimate concerns," said St-Arnaud. "There were questions, we expressed this concern, we wanted to be reassured and I consider the comments of the director of elections (on Sunday) reassuring."
The Liberals saw it differently, as the first signs of panic among the PQ ranks. Couillard said pulling the election chief into the melee was "regrettable."
Couillard called the PQ's contentions "grotesque" and said Marois should have called St-Arnaud and other candidates who participated in Sunday's news conference to order.
"I think the behaviour of the PQ (on Sunday) was totally inappropriate," Couillard said at a hardware store in Sherbrooke.
"To literally intimidate the independent electoral officer for something that is being demonstrated as a totally deflated balloon, essentially. There is no difference between what is happening now and what happened in previous elections in terms of numbers."
Denis Dion, a spokesman for Elections Quebec, said the institution was surprised by St-Arnaud's decision to call them out during a news conference, calling the tactic a bit "particular."
"The idea of telling us in a press conference how to do our job is not the way it works usually between the DGE (Elections Quebec) and the political parties," said Dion.
Dion said he doesn't believe the PQ move was an attempt to use Elections Quebec for partisan attacks.
"I won't go as far as that," Dion said.
Last week, the province's corruption inquiry called on all parties to keep them out of such tactics after a photo of chairwoman France Charbonneau appeared in a PQ ad targeting the Liberals.
Marois said Monday she doesn't believe her party's response was exaggerated.
She noted that Elections Quebec sent out extra material to clarify the issues being raised and she vowed her party will remain vigilant.
"That is our responsibility, it is important for us to respect the process of voting in Quebec," Marois said. "That is the rule of our democracy."
As for those who have been turned away, Dion said those would-be electors can request a revision of the decision to leave them off the voting list.
"It is possible to come back to the board, but you have to have a new fact, new information that could have resulted in a different decision had it been known," Dion said.
Voters have until April 3 to register for the vote on April 7.
For Couillard, he'll leave the question of who can vote to the province's electoral chief.
"The person judging this is not me or Mme. Marois, it's the chief electoral officer," Couillard said.
One person who was anxious to pass judgment on the Liberals was Coalition Leader Francois Legault.
Legault, whose party is trailing in the polls behind the Liberals and the PQ, made it clear he's targeting Couillard's party.
"Pauline Marois and the PQ, they're dead, in my mind," he said in Becancour. "They're not the ones who are going to win."
Legault urged voters to think twice about re-electing the Liberals, who governed between 2003 and 2012.
"After nine years of negativity from (ex-premier) Jean Charest, how can Quebecers contemplate giving the Liberals another four years. I can't believe that is what Quebecers want."
— With files from Canadian Press reporters Martin Ouellet in Drummond, Alexandre Robillard in Sherbooke and Patrice Bergeron in Becancour.
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