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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Quebec's unpopular Liberal government narrowly survived a vote of confidence on Wednesday, fending off a move by separatists to force an early election in the Canadian province.
The provincial legislature voted 61-57 to defeat the motion from the separatist Parti Quebecois, which wants Premier Jean Charest to launch an official inquiry into widespread allegations of corruption in the construction industry.
Charest's Liberals, who have been in power since 2003, are increasingly unpopular. Polls show the Parti Quebecois -- which wants the largely French-speaking province of 7.5 million to separate from Canada -- would likely win a provincial election if one were held now.
Before the vote, Charest urged legislators to wait for the results of a police inquiry into the allegations. He also said the Parti Quebecois would plunge the province into a crisis by quickly pushing for another referendum on independence.
Quebec has been rocked for months by 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.
Speaking just before the vote, Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois said Charest should either resign or call an immediate election.
The Liberals won a narrow majority of seats in the legislature in the December 2008 election and can stay in power for up to five years.
An online petition demanding Charest step down has attracted more than 233,000 signatures since it was set up on November 15. Polls show most Quebecers disapprove of the premier.
Previous Part Quebecois 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 regains 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.
Stories of corruption in the construction industry are not the only scandals to have hit the Liberal government.
Earlier this year, Charest set up a commission to investigate 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 Rob Wilson