OTTAWA (Reuters) - The leader of a party seeking independence for the province of Quebec has won a huge vote of confidence from party members, ending talk of a split in the movement at a time when Canada is focused on a federal election campaign.
Parti Quebecois (PQ) leader Pauline Marois won a crushing victory at a party convention over the weekend, with more than 93 percent of party members backing her leadership. It was the biggest vote of confidence for any PQ leader since the party was created in 1968.
The Parti Quebecois is in opposition, but polls show it would beat Quebec's Liberal government if a provincial election were held now. Previous PQ governments of the French-speaking province twice held referendums on separating from Canada but both failed.
The results of a successful referendum on independence for the country's second most populous province would undoubtedly cause massive political turmoil and instability in Canada, which is the largest exporter of energy to the United States.
Marois has been vague about when a government under her control might propose another referendum, prompting unhappiness among famously fractious party hard-liners who prefer a quick push for independence.
"To those federalists who hoped that our will to build a country would fade ... you should know that we are leaving here still more determined, more united, stronger and more convinced than ever," Marois told the convention's closing session on Sunday.
She said that even before a referendum, a PQ government would adopt a constitution for the province, strengthen laws designed to boost the use of French and introduce special citizenship for Quebecers.
On the national level, the Bloc Quebecois -- the PQ's federal counterpart -- holds so many of Quebec's seats in Parliament that it has become extremely difficult for other parties to win a majority government.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives won minorities in 2006 and 2008 and he says he needs a majority in the May 2 election to help combat separatism.
Harper noted that Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe said over the weekend that his goal was to make Quebec a country and one way to achieve this was for the Bloc to stay powerful.
"Step one (for Duceppe) is to weaken the country, have a weak government in Ottawa, and that is another reason why Canadians, we believe, must choose a strong, stable, national Conservative majority," Harper told reporters.
If Harper decides to attack the Bloc head on it could cost him some of the seats that the Conservatives hold in the province. Quebecers, even those who do not want independence, are particularly sensitive to what they see as "Quebec bashing" by federal politicians.
Michael Ignatieff, leader of the federal Liberals, the biggest opposition party at the national level, accused Harper of "selling fear from one end of the country to the other".
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway