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MONTREAL (Reuters) - Quebec Premier Jean Charest said on Thursday he wants opposition parties to support his government's upcoming budget, not trigger an election in the mainly French-speaking Canadian province of 7.6 million.
The Liberal minority government plans to introduce its 2008-09 budget on March 13 and needs support from either of the two main opposition parties to survive.
If the budget does not pass in the provincial legislature, Quebec's 5.6 million voters would be asked to cast ballots in a spring election just over a year after knocking the Liberals from a majority to a minority government.
That would pit the Liberals, who want Quebec to remain in Canada, against the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ), and the conservative Action democratique du Quebec (ADQ) in what could be another tight three-way race.
Recent public opinion polls show the Liberals slightly ahead of the PQ and well in front of the ADQ in popularity, but the numbers tend to swing widely.
A return to power by the PQ could trigger a third referendum on separation from Canada. Quebec voted against separation in referendums held in 1995 and 1980.
"I do not want an election," Charest told reporters after a meeting of his party caucus in Quebec City.
"I want that we can accept and respect the choice that Quebecers made a year ago to have a government of cohabitation, and work with the other parties," he added.
The Liberals have 48 seats in the 125-seat legislature, compared with 41 for the ADQ and 34 for the PQ. Two seats are vacant.
Charest said Quebec has only C$200 million of leeway in the roughly C$60 billion budget. Last year's budget called for balanced books in 2008-09 despite a C$950-million tax cut that came into effect in January.
He warned the opposition parties to temper their expectations and urged them to find common ground on the budget.
"It's not as though we open up the vault and there is money to spend indefinitely. The choices are limited," he said.
Charest dismissed a PQ suggestion that Quebec seek additional revenues by raising the province's sales tax by one percentage point to take advantage of a one-point cut in the federal goods and services tax that was recently put into effect.
The PQ also wants more money poured into Quebec's public health and education systems, and aid for the manufacturing and forest products sectors.
Both have been hit hard by the cost effects of resurgent Canadian dollar and a falloff in demand stemming from the U.S. economic slowdown.
Quebec's C$270 billion economy is heavily reliant on exports to the United States.
The PQ said it would not give the Liberals free rein, and is prepared to trigger an election if the budget fails to impress.
"If necessary, we'll certainly go," Francois Legault, PQ finance critic, told Radio-Canada television.
For its part, the ADQ tried to topple the Liberal government last autumn over demands for education system reforms, and this year is asking for subsidies to families that do not use government-backed public day-care services. The Charest government has said that idea would cost too much money.
Reporting by Robert Melnbardis; Editing by Peter Galloway