OTTAWA (Reuters) - A sudden mutiny is threatening to tear apart the separatist Parti Quebecois, which had been widely expected to win the next election in the Canadian province of Quebec and then press for independence.
A fourth legislator quit the party's parliamentary caucus on Tuesday, a day after three heavyweights said they were resigning in protest over the leadership of Pauline Marois.
Jean-Martin Aussant said Marois -- who has been in the job since June 2007 -- should quit.
"I do not think Mrs Marois is the woman people want to follow when it comes to creating a country," he told a news conference as party members held a special caucus meeting.
Although Marois received a 93 percent vote of confidence at a party congress in April, there have long been internal gripes about her performance.
The Parti Quebecois is committed to achieving independence for Quebec but to do so it would first have to regain power and hold a referendum on splitting away from Canada. Its two previous referendums failed, in 1980 and 1995.
Although the PQ comfortably leads the governing Liberals in the polls, influential hard-liners complain about what they see as the leader's heavy-handedness and her lack of drive to gain Quebec's independence.
The party has long been split between those who want independence as soon as possible and a more moderate wing which is prepared to wait. The divisions make the PQ hard to run and Marois -- who declines to say when she would hold a referendum -- is just the latest leader to get into trouble.
Marois prompted the mutiny by demanding her party back a bill that would prevent lawsuits against a 25-year deal that Quebec City struck with cable and media company Quebecor to manage a proposed C$400 million National Hockey League-caliber arena.
In return for the deal, Quebecor committed to investing in the building project and trying to land an NHL team. The party rebels said the city had failed to call for public tenders before signing the deal.
The three legislators who quit on Monday said the arena affair had been the last straw and attacked the way Marois was leading the party.
"The Parti Quebecois I am leaving is that of an extreme authority obsessed by power. The atmosphere has become stifling," said Lisette Lapointe.
The four defections mean the Parti Quebecois now has 48 of the 125 seats in Quebec's provincial legislature. The governing Liberals, who have 65 seats, are expected to call an election either in late 2012 or early 2013.
Although the Parti Quebecois is ahead in the polls provincially, its sister separatist party the Bloc Quebecois -- which fields candidates in federal elections -- did very badly in the national vote on May 2, losing all but a handful of seats.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson