Separatists lose ground in Quebec as Liberals ahead

Quebec's Premier Jean Charest listens to a question during a news conference at the National Assembly in Quebec City December 4, 2007. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Separatists in the Canadian province of Quebec have lost their lead in public support and stand almost no chance of regaining power if a provincial election were held today, a poll indicated on Tuesday.

The CROP poll for La Presse put the separatist Parti Quebecois at 32 percent, three percentage points lower than in a survey done by the same company in late January. The ruling Liberals were up four points to 35 percent, the first time they have been ahead since an election last March.

The Liberals of Premier Jean Charest retained power in the province-wide vote, but saw their majority government slashed to a fragile minority.

One of the main reasons for Liberal losses was a surge in support for the right-wing Action democratique du Quebec, which also opposes independence. Since then, the ADQ has steadily lost support and the latest poll showed it had dropped three points to 21 percent.

Previous Parti Quebecois governments held two referendums on whether the predominantly French-speaking province should break away from Canada. Both votes -- in 1980 and 1995 -- failed.

The poll had better news for the federal wing of the Liberal Party, which lost power nationally in January 2006 in part because of a kickbacks scandal in the province. CROP said support for the party rose by two points to 22 percent.

The federal Conservatives of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who are confident they can increase their haul of seats in the next federal election, stayed steady at 27 percent. That is only slightly above their count in the January 2006 election and indicates they will not win many more seats.

The separatist Bloc Quebecois dropped three points to 36 percent.

The CROP survey of 1,000 people was conducted from February 14 to 24 and is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway