The campaign to succeed Quebec Premier Rene Levesque opened Friday, sparking a contest that could determine whether the Parti Quebecois returns to the hard-line separatism Levesque eventually rejected.
The premier, whose vision of taking Quebec out of Canada to become an independent French-speaking nation fell short in a decisive referendum in May, 1980, submitted his resignation as party chief just before midnight Thursday.
All party members will be eligible to vote for the new leader at a date still to be set in August or September. The Parti Quebecois executive committee met Friday to discuss the organization, timing, spending limits and other details of the leadership campaign, the first in the party's history.
Levesque, 62, a rumpled, chain-smoking figure, has been party president since its founding in 1968 and premier of Quebec since 1976.
'Best and Most-Loved'
Marcel Leger, an executive committee member and tourism minister, said Levesque will be remembered as "the best and most-loved prime minister Quebec has ever had."
Justice Minister Pierre-Marc Johnson, a moderate, is the early favorite to succeed Levesque as party leader and premier. He was the clear winner in an internal dispute last fall and winter, which ended with Levesque proposing to drop independence as an immediate party goal.
The Johnson-Levesque position was approved by a 2-1 margin at a party convention in January, but many hard-liners have remained active, hoping their group could win back control of the party once Levesque was gone.
Former Finance Minister Jacques Parizeau, who resigned in protest of the decision to drop the campaign for independence, has been mentioned often as a likely candidate. Of those who stayed with Levesque, External Trade Minister Bernard Landry is considered pro-independence and likely to challenge Johnson.