Pro-independence party set to call Quebec election

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MONTREAL (AP) — Quebec's premier is set to call an election Wednesday in pursuit of a majority of seats for her pro-independence party, potentially putting the French-speaking province on track for another referendum to separate from Canada.

Premier Pauline Marois' Parti Quebecois holds a minority of seats in the Quebec legislature, and polls suggest the party could make gains in key districts in a vote set for April 7.

The leader of the opposition Liberals, Philippe Couillard, has struggled to connect with voters, and the PQ is hoping to steal away votes from the slumping third-place party, the Coalition for Quebec's Future.

The Parti Quebecois has held power since September 2012, when it beat out the Liberals and longtime premier Jean Charest, a staunch defender of Canadian unity.

It has been nearly two decades since Quebec held a referendum on sovereignty. The province has held two such votes to split from Canada, most recently in 1995, when it narrowly rejected independence.

If the Parti Quebecois does succeed in getting a majority, there's no guarantee it will hold another referendum any time soon.

Christian Bourque, vice president with the Montreal-based polling firm Leger Marketing, said support for Quebec independence remains stuck at around 40 percent and hasn't changed significantly in 10 years.

"It doesn't really move across time, so there's no real momentum behind sovereignty," he said. "Of course, if they get a majority government a lot of supporters will be asking, 'Well, when is the big night?'"

So far, Marois has promised only to hold public hearings on the future of Quebec in the hope it will generate support for a referendum.

The Parti Quebecois maintains it will call a vote on the question when the conditions are right.

While Quebec independence is the Parti Quebecois' ultimate goal, much of the focus in recent months has centered around its controversial charter values law that would ban public employees from wearing symbols of religious faith such as Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans, Muslim headscarves and large crucifixes. The Parti Quebecois argues the law is necessary to ensure the religious neutrality of the state.

While the proposal has come under heavy criticism, Bourque said the Parti Quebecois has seen support climb since it began pushing the proposal in August, especially in battleground districts outside Montreal.

"If the PQ wants to win a majority they need support in the regions, and that's where support for the charter is strongest," Bourque said.

The Parti Quebecois recently has tried to erase doubts over its ability to run the economy, announcing several job-creation projects and plans to exploit oil reserves in the province.

The government has promised to lead the struggling province out of the red by 2015-16, abandoning an earlier prediction to balance the books by this year.

Guy Lachapelle, a political scientist at Montreal's Concordia University, expects the election to focus on energy, environmental issues and health care. But as the campaign comes to a close, it likely will shift to the question of independence as the Parti Quebecois and Liberals each seek to galvanize their base, Lachapelle said.

If the Parti Quebecois succeeds in getting a majority, the immediate consequence likely will be stiffer laws protecting the French language and the values charter.

But Lachapelle said the party will be watching closely what transpires in Scotland's referendum on independence from the United Kingdom, set for this fall.

"If there is kind of momentum for that, they could go ahead with a referendum," he said.

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