November 5, 2008 / 3:34 PM / in 9 years

Quebec's PM calls election, separatists vulnerable

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Liberal premier of Quebec on Wednesday called an election for December 8, which looks set to deal a fresh blow to separatists seeking independence for the predominantly French-speaking Canadian province.

<p>Quebec's Premier Jean Charest gestures as he speaks during question period at the National Assembly in Quebec City, November 4, 2008. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger</p>

Jean Charest, whose party only controls a fragile minority of seats in the provincial parliament, says he needs a strong hand to deal with the financial slowdown that is hurting the province of 7.5 million.

Charest won a majority in the 2003 election but barely hung on to power in the next election in March 2007.

Polls show the Liberals are likely to make major gains at the expense of the right-leaning Action democratique du Quebec and will also take seats from the separatist Parti Quebecois.

Charest said neither opposition party was interested in working with the Liberals.

“Quebecers know very well that a minority government is an unstable government. Quebecers also know that you can’t have three pairs of hands on the rudder during a storm,” he told a televised news conference.

“I am firmly convinced that you need political stability to have economic prosperity. While this cohabitation (with the other parties) can work during a period of growth, it is an foolish risk during a period of uncertainty,” he said.

The Quebec government said on Tuesday it would maintain balanced budgets in 2008-09 and 2009-10 and promised the province would avoid a recession.

It also cut its forecast for Quebec’s economic growth next year to 0.6 percent from 2.0 percent in the March budget.

“This election campaign will allow Quebecers to reply to a single question -- which team will they trust to manage Quebec during this economic storm?” said Charest, whose Liberals have 48 of the 125 seats in Quebec’s National Assembly.

The ADQ, which almost won last year’s election but since then has slumped in popularity, has 39 seats, while the Parti Quebecois has 36. There are two vacancies.

PQ leader Pauline Marois, insisting her party had tried to cooperate with Charest, said she did not want an election now. She warned the Liberals that they would suffer the same fate as U.S. Republican presidential nominee John McCain, who lost to Democrat Barack Obama in Tuesday’s election.

“Yesterday our great neighbors to the south felt the wind of change blowing. We’ll help this little wind of change cross the border so that on December 8 we’ll also experience a change,” she told a news conference.

PQ governments held referendums on separation in 1980 and 1995, but both failed. Amid signs that Quebecers have little enthusiasm for the idea of independence, the PQ has dropped talk of holding another referendum quickly if it takes power.

In the March 2007 election the Liberals won 33 percent of the vote, just two points more than the ADQ, while the PQ took 28 percent of the vote. Last week two Quebec polls showed the Liberals six to eight points ahead of the Parti Quebecois and 18 to 21 points ahead of the ADQ.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway

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