Quebec separatists hope to win poll

Voters in Quebec are heading to the polls in an election that may see a separatist party return to power, potentially placing the French-speaking province on course for another referendum to break away from Canada.

Liberal leader Jean Charest, who has headed Quebec for nearly a decade, called an early election on August 1, and has consistently trailed in the polls to Pauline Marois's Parti Quebecois (PQ).

But some polls indicate Ms Marois - who could become the province's first female premier - may not have enough votes to obtain a majority of the seats in the Quebec Assembly, undermining efforts to quickly hold a referendum on separation.

Quebec has held two referendums to split from Canada, in 1980 and 1995, the last narrowly rejecting independence. Polls show there is little appetite for a new referendum and Ms Marois herself has left much uncertainty about if and when one would be held under a PQ government.

A recent poll showed support for independence under 30% but analysts say voters are weary of the Liberals after three terms in office and the PQ are expected to benefit from that.

The PQ has said once elected it would seek a transfer of powers from the federal government in areas such as employment insurance and immigration policy. The PQ believes if this is turned down it would bolster their case that Quebec should be a separate country.

The campaign has been a three-way race involving a new party, Coalition Avenir Quebec, headed by a former PQ minister who says the separation issue has paralysed the province for far too long.

Mr Charest called the election more than a year before he had to, citing unrest in the streets due to this spring's student protests over tuition hikes. The most sustained student protests ever to take place in Canada began in February, resulting in about 2,500 arrests.

Polls showed the Quebecois were more likely to side with the government on the need for a tuition hike, but they were divided on an emergency law brought in to limit demonstrations. Politicians and rights groups have said the legislation restricts the right to demonstrate.