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LAVAL, Quebec (Reuters) - A party that seeks independence for the French-speaking province of Quebec has assumed a disproportionate role in the politics of Canada, the country it would like to see broken up.
The perennially strong electoral showing of the Bloc Quebecois in the province has made it all but impossible for rival parties to win a majority in the federal Parliament, allowing the separatist party to play the role of kingmaker.
"The Bloc has been very good in having Quebeckers believe that they are defending their interests," said Thierry Giasson, political scientist at Laval University in Quebec City, noting successes that included C$3.3 billion ($3.4 billion) in payments as a price of Bloc support for the Conservative federal government in 2007. "They do have a track record."
That sort of campaigning is clear in the industrial Montreal suburb of Laval, where popular Bloc candidate Nicole Demers is running for a fourth term in the Canadian Parliament ahead of the May 2 federal election.
Her campaign focuses on extracting the best possible deal for the province, rather than campaigning on the party's official separatist program. She says other parties have forgotten that as they try to win seats in Quebec.
"They defended Ottawa in Quebec. They didn't defend Quebec in Ottawa," Demers said in her campaign office, located above a strip mall on one of Laval's main drags, across from several blocks of low-rent housing.
The Bloc was the third largest party in the outgoing Canadian parliament with 47 of the 308 seats. The Conservative government had 143 seats, not enough to rule without support from at least one opposition party.
The Bloc's support for independence gives it a stigma nationally and among those Quebeckers who want their province to stay in Canada. But Montreal-based pollster Jean-Marc Leger said about 20 percent of Quebec federalists -- people who believe Quebec should stay part of Canada -- see the Bloc as a safe vote that will be good for the province.
In a 1995 referendum 49.4 percent of Quebeckers voted to secede. Leger said support for independence has receded to a stable 40 percent since then.
Rachid, a taxi driver from Morocco who did not want his last name used, said he would support the ruling Conservatives or the Bloc, even though he wants a united Canada.
"(The Bloc) defends the interests of Quebeckers. But I am against Quebec independence," he said.
There's tactical voting too, and some voters admit a vote for the Bloc might be the best way to prevent a Conservative majority government.
"With a minority government, they can't do what they want," Marcelle Desjardins said during a pause in her shopping at the Center Laval mall. She opposes separation but said the Bloc can earn its keep by stopping a Conservative majority.
The sheer number of Bloc seats in the federal Parliament effectively means another party must win 60 percent of seats outside Quebec to win a majority government.
That's not happened since 2000, when the Liberals won a majority, thanks mostly to the existence of two competing parties, which split the right-of-center vote.
Those two parties merged in 2003 to form the Conservatives. Canada has three minority governments since then, one Liberal and two Conservative.
Those parties have their own policies in Quebec, and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff on Wednesday poked fun of the Bloc's campaign slogan "Parlons Quebec," or "Let's talk Quebec," declaring that the Bloc is powerless to bring change.
"He can talk and chat and chat," he said of veteran Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe at a rally in the Montreal suburb of Brossard. "But we are here to act."
Conservative leader and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has warned daily that unless he gets a majority, Ignatieff will form Canada's next government with support from the leftist New Democrats and the Bloc.
If the Conservatives win the most seats but don't get a majority, the Bloc and New Democrats could indeed be in the position of determining whether the Conservatives or Liberals will form government, by deciding which party to back.
Ignatieff says the leader of the party with the most seats should be Canada's next prime minister and he has no plans for a coalition.
Leger said the national parties were erring by not tailoring their campaigns in the province to Quebec.
"The parties are stupid because they don't connect and they don't try to connect with Quebeckers," he said.
Editing by Janet Guttsman