UPDATE 1-Signs point to early Quebec election, outcome uncertain

Wed Jul 11, 2012 5:08pm EDT

Related Topics

* Paper says Quebec premier wants Sept. 4 election

* Polls show ruling Liberals tied with separatists

By David Ljunggren

July 11 (Reuters) - There are growing signs that Quebec Premier Jean Charest will call an early election despite polls showing his ruling Liberals could lose to a separatist party that seeks independence for the mostly French-speaking Canadian province.

Montreal's La Presse newspaper, citing what it said were several Liberal insiders, said Charest strongly favored launching the campaign on August 1. That would mean an election on Sept. 4.

Charest's chief spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Charest, who took over as premier in 2003 and was re-elected with a majority government in 2008, has become increasingly unpopular over the last two years amid allegations of corruption and kickbacks in the influential construction industry.

Charest long resisted the idea of a probe into the industry but changed his mind after the leak of a secret report from an investigator who found that laundered money from organized crime groups was financing political parties, including the Liberals.

A Sept. 4 election would take place before the corruption inquiry restarts on Sept. 17 and at a time when many in the province are still in a relaxed end-of-summer mood.

"Maybe Mr. Charest is saying (his) risk of losing will never be lower," said Christian Bourque of polling firm Leger Marketing, who noted that low turn-outs often tend to favor the governing party.

"There is no evidence in Canada that a government has been punished for when it called an election," he told Reuters.

Charest also courted controversy in May when the government pushed through a law clamping down on student protesters unhappy with proposed tuition hikes. The law prompted widespread condemnation from trade unions, lawyers and other groups who said it was far too draconian.

Another big hint of Charest's plans came when veteran Liberal legislator Norman MacMillan announced his retirement on Wednesday and said he had been asked to bring the date forward by almost two months because of an imminent election.

"Everyone thinks there is going to be an election soon and the decision was taken because of that. It's clear, you can't hide the fact that there will be an election soon, but I don't know the date," he told reporters.

Leger's most recent poll in late June put the Liberals in a statistical tie with the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ), which wants the province to break away from Canada. A CROP poll at the end of May also showed the two parties tied.

Because of the way votes are distributed, the Liberals need to be three to four percentage points ahead of the PQ to stand a chance of winning even a minority government, Bourque said.

A PQ government would likely need to hold a province-wide referendum on independence before being able to break away from Canada. Similar votes failed in 1980 and 1995. Opinion surveys show fewer than 50 percent of Quebecers back the idea of separation.

PQ leader Pauline Marois said a Sept. 4 election would be pure cynicism on behalf of Charest, who doesn't have to call another vote until the end of 2013.

"He probably wants people to forget his record to such an extent that he would hold an election campaign ... while Quebecers are on holiday," she told Radio-Canada television.

Marois, who refuses to say when a government led by her would call a referendum, is under pressure from hard liners who want independence as soon as possible.

Last August a handful of influential legislators quit the party in frustration over her leadership style.

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