OTTAWA (Reuters) - Quebec Premier Jean Charest defiantly stared down opposition legislators on Wednesday just hours before a parliamentary confidence vote put forward by separatists who want independence for the giant Canadian province.
Charest's Liberals, who have been in power since 2003, were expected to narrowly survive the vote. Polls show that the separatist Parti Quebecois would most likely win a Quebec provincial election if one were held now.
Charest, under enormous pressure to launch a probe into allegations of corruption in the construction industry, urged the National Assembly to wait for the results of a police inquiry into the matter.
He also warned legislators that the Parti Quebecois would plunge the province into crisis by quickly pushing for another referendum on independence.
Charest's popularity has fallen steadily amid lurid media stories about the construction industry, including collusion in fixing contracts and supposed Mafia involvement.
"Launching a commission without knowing the facts, or having proof, is useless," said Charest, adding that such a probe would take years and merely produce a report.
"We'd see a string of people who -- guaranteed they would have immunity -- could say whatever they wanted ... everyone is protected at a commission of inquiry. No one is protected during a police inquiry," he thundered.
An online petition demanding Charest step down has attracted more than 233,000 signatures since it was set up on Nov 15. Polls show most Quebecers disapprove of the premier.
Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois, saying people in the province were disgusted by dirty tricks and backroom secrets, urged Liberal members of the National Assembly to help bring down the government.
"This is above all a vote of conscience. Will Liberal legislators finally put the interests of the public (and) the protection of the common good above the partisan interests of the Liberal Party?" she said.
The Liberals have 65 of the National Assembly's 125 seats and if all those legislators back Charest, he will survive.
Previous PQ governments held province-wide votes on independence in 1980 and 1995. Both failed, although the 1995 referendum was extremely close and caused enormous political trauma across the country.
Marois has been vague about the timing of another referendum if her party regained power.
"Quebecers know the priority of the Parti Quebecois leader and her legislators is sovereignty ... and to get there (she) wants to plunge Quebec into a referendum crisis as quickly as possible," Charest said.
Earlier this year Charest set up a commission to probe allegations by former Liberal Justice Minister Marc Bellemare that the premier had told him to give judgeships to allies of major fund-raisers. Charest denied the charge.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway