OTTAWA (Reuters) - Quebec's separatist government moved to capitalize on a lead in the polls on Wednesday, launching a provincial election it hopes will result in a majority government that could eventually lead to a third referendum on independence from Canada.
"It is necessary to put an end to the obstruction of our opponents," Premier Pauline Marois of the Parti Quebecois (PQ), who has headed a minority government for the past 18 months, said in triggering the April 7 election.
The first two referendums on Quebec independence, in 1980 and 1995, failed; the separatists can only launch another one if they have a majority of seats in the Quebec legislature. They might choose not to call a new referendum, but winning a majority would give them the option.
"The return of the PQ government will ensure a referendum on the separation of Quebec," declared Philippe Couillard, head of the Quebec Liberal Party, which wants to keep Canada united.
Canada narrowly escaped breakup in 1995, when a vote on separation went down by 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent after a campaign that weighed on Canada's dollar and government bonds. The vote in 1980 lost by a larger margin, 59.6 percent to 40.4 percent.
In launching her re-election campaign, Marois did not mention a referendum, but the campaign slogan for her political party, the Parti Quebecois, gave a hint: "More prosperous, stronger, more independent and more welcoming."
An Internet survey by pollster Leger published on Wednesday by the Journal de Montreal pointed to a majority government for the Parti Quebecois.
The survey of 1,502 people put the PQ ahead of the Liberal Party of Quebec by 37 percent to 35 percent. But the important number lay in the huge margin for the separatists, 45 percent for the PQ, compared with 23 percent for the Liberals, in Quebec's dominant French-speaking population.
"It's a magic number to win a parliamentary majority, because many electoral districts are majority francophone," Leger pollster Christian Bourque was quoted as saying by the Journal de Montreal.
However, a vote for a separatist party does not necessarily mean a vote for separation. In the same poll, 49 percent of respondents said they would vote no in a referendum on Quebec sovereignty, with only 34 percent for and 17 percent not providing an answer.
Both separatists and federalists will be nervously eyeing Scotland's referendum, scheduled for September 18, on whether to leave the United Kingdom. A vote for independence there could embolden those who want Quebec to leave Canada, while defeat could dampen the sovereignty movement in Quebec.
Since the tight result in the 1995 Quebec referendum, the Canadian government passed a law declaring that secession would be possible only if there were a clear majority on a clear question -- in order to avoid breaking up the country on simply one vote more than 50 percent.
"We will do everything possible to build a Quebec where we will be master and prosperous in our own house," Marois said, calling on Quebec voters to make "the only choice will prove interesting for the future of Quebec."
Couillard of the Quebec Liberals called on voters to toss the PQ out of office by saying "no to division, no to a referendum and to separation, and no to the ideas of the past."
His reference to division alluded to the PQ's proposed charter of secularism, which would prohibit public-sector employees from wearing overt religious symbols such as the hijab, skullcaps or large crosses.
The charter plan is highly controversial, but ended up boosting the popularity of the PQ, which has also promised to toughen up laws requiring the predominance of French, in order to stop what it sees as a slide into bilingualism.
Canada's federal Conservative government is quite unpopular in Quebec. Its senior Quebec minister, Denis Lebel, said: "We will let democracy express itself in Quebec. I hope that they will discuss the economy, but we won't be getting involved in the election campaign."
The leader of Canada's opposition New Democratic Party, Quebec native Thomas Mulcair, said another referendum should be avoided.
"I do not think Quebecers want a third referendum," he told reporters in Ottawa. "They are very divisive, right down to the family unit, and it's not something that I would wish upon my friends and family and neighbors in Quebec again."
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by James Dalgleish, Peter Galloway, Jeffrey Hodgson and Leslie Adler