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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Quebec's separatist party has slumped to second place, according to an opinion poll released on Thursday, after suffering several high-profile defections that helped the Liberals jump into the lead.
The separatist Parti Quebecois had held a comfortable lead until recently over the Liberals, who have been battered by allegations of wrongdoing. The PQ was widely expected to win the next election and then press for independence for the Canadian province.
But Thursday's Crop poll for La Presse newspaper showed support for Quebec's Liberal Party rose to 35 percent, up 12 points from a month earlier. Voting intentions for the PQ fell to 29 percent from 34 percent in May.
The Internet poll was done June 15 to 20.
"If there was an election last week, the Liberals would probably have won a majority," pollster Youri Rivest is quoted as saying in La Presse.
In a recent twist, the poll also showed Quebecers would rally behind a new party that is expected to be created by Francois Legault, a former PQ minister who now wants to bury the independence issue. A party led by Legault would command 40 percent of the vote compared with 26 percent for the Liberals and 17 percent for the PQ.
Liberal Premier Jean Charest, who has led the predominantly French-speaking province since 2003, has been flagging in polls following a series of political scandals, including allegations he tried to influence the appointment of judges.
His government narrowly survived a confidence motion last November and an official inquiry dismissed the allegations early this year. He has been trying to rebound ever since.
Charest can choose when to hold an election but has a December 2013 deadline for doing so, under provincial election laws. Some pundits have speculated he may call a vote sooner while Liberal support is high.
A sudden mutiny has caused disarray in the PQ, denting the hopes of hard-line separatists for another referendum on independence. Five prominent legislators have quit the party's parliamentary caucus in protest over the leadership of Pauline Marois.
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 from Canada. Its two previous referendums, in 1980 and 1995, both failed.
Reporting by Louise Egan; editing by Rob Wilson