OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec holds an election on Monday and opinion polls show that separatists who want independence have little chance of winning power.
The minority Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest is set to make major gains and could well win a majority of the 125 seats in Quebec’s national assembly.
Polls open at 9:30 a.m. (1430 GMT) and close at 8 p.m. The likely winner should be known by around 10 p.m.
Charest, who won a majority in 2003 and then barely hung onto power in a March 2007 vote, called the election last month on the grounds that he needed a majority government to deal with the worsening effects of the global financial crisis.
“The economic stakes are so great that they transcend everything else,” he told reporters on Sunday, after making an appeal to backers of the separatist Parti Quebecois.
The separatist movement peaked in 1995, when the province’s then-Parti Quebecois government held a referendum on breaking away from the rest of Canada. The move failed narrowly.
Since then, support in Quebec for breaking away from Canada has gradually faded and is now under 40 percent.
During this election, party leader Pauline Marois promised that, if she were to win, she would not push for an immediate referendum.
This prompted angry protests from hard-liners and some political observers predict there could be a leadership challenge if the party loses badly.
The campaign has generated very little enthusiasm and last week the province’s chief electoral officer issued an appeal urging people to vote.
Jean-Herman Guay, a professor of politics at Sherbrooke University, said Quebecers had been paying more attention to the recent political drama in Ottawa, where opposition parties are trying to bring down the Conservative federal government.
“The big question is whether people are going to go and vote,” he told Radio-Canada television on Monday.
On the federal level, the Bloc Quebecois -- the sister party of the Parti Quebecois -- has promised to support a coalition government that the opposition parties want to create.
This prompted Prime Minister Stephen Harper to rail against separatists, sparking concerns that Quebec voters might rally to the Parti Quebecois on Monday. Political observers said Harper’s angry comments had most likely come too late to influence the provincial election.
Charest is promising to boost spending on health care and education if he wins.
Any gains the Liberals make are likely to be at the expense of the right-leaning Action democratique du Quebec party, which came very close to winning the March 2007 election but has since slumped in popularity.
The ADQ has 39 seats, while the Parti Quebecois has 36. There are two vacancies.
Editing by John O'Callaghan