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(Reuters) - Quebec Premier Jean Charest intends to call a provincial election on Wednesday, with voters going to the polls on September 4, the French arm of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp, Radio Canada, said on Tuesday.
The election will pit Charest's Liberals against the Parti Quebecois, which is running neck-and-neck in public support and which seeks independence for the French-speaking Canadian province.
But poll numbers show that because of the involvement of a new third party, it would be difficult for the Parti Quebecois to get a majority of seats, which it would need if it wanted to launch another referendum on separation.
The separatists lost referendums on independence in 1980 and 1995, the latter by just a whisker.
The pro-Canada Liberals have been in power since 2003, and won a majority government in 2008. But they have lost support over the last two years amid allegations of corruption and kickbacks in the construction industry.
At a news conference in his hometown of Sherbrooke, Quebec, Charest ducked questions on when he would call an election, but he noted that his government was in the fourth year of its mandate and it was normal to make electoral preparations.
He sought to frame an eventual campaign in terms of whether the government should focus on the economy and jobs, or on another referendum.
"There are two visions that will stand opposed to each other, and Quebec citizens, when an election is called, will ultimately have to decide in which kind of society they want to live," he said.
Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois, sensitive to unease about the sovereignty issue among certain segments of the population, has refused to set out a timetable for moving toward a third referendum should she take power.
Marois told reporters on Tuesday it was "not right" for Charest to launch an election in the middle of summer and said he was going to extremes to get Quebec voters to forget his record.
Radio Canada said Charest had contacted Lieutenant Governor Pierre Duchesne to be sure he would be in his office on Wednesday to dissolve the provincial legislature and open the election campaign.
Reporting by Randall Palmer and David Ljunggren; Editing by Janet Guttsman; and Peter Galloway