By Randall Palmer
OTTAWA (Reuters) - The governing separatist Parti Quebecois would lose next month's Quebec provincial election if it were held now, a poll released on Tuesday showed, a casualty of renewed concentration during the campaign on the issue of independence from Canada.
The Leger poll, taken after last Thursday's televised leaders' debate, extended a trend that began after powerful Quebec businessman Pierre Karl Peladeau said he would run for election for the Parti Quebecois, and stated baldly that he was joining the race because he wanted the Canadian province to become a country.
The Leger Internet survey, which is not fully random like a phone poll, showed 40 percent of respondents supported the Liberal Party of Quebec, which wants Canada to stay united, and 33 percent backed the Parti Quebecois, with lesser support for smaller parties.
The Parti Quebecois, which currently has a minority of seats in the provincial legislature, had entered the campaign with a slight edge in support over the Liberals, but the Liberals now look set to take a majority of seats.
The raison d'etre of the Parti Quebecois is to lead the mainly French-speaking province out of Canada, but because a majority of Quebec residents do not want this, the party has generally soft-pedaled separation and focused on other issues.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti Quebecois, said repeatedly in last week's debate that she would only hold a referendum on separation if Quebecers were ready for one.
But Peladeau's open statement about his desire for an independent Quebec helped crystallize the issue for voters, and 47 percent of those polled said they believe the Parti Quebecois will hold a vote on independence if it wins the election. Thirty-six percent said it wouldn't, and 17 percent did not know or respond.
Canada escaped breakup in 1995 when a referendum in Quebec on separation lost by 1.2 percentage points. A similar vote in 1980 lost by 59.6 percent to 40.4 percent.
A Leger poll released on March 5 had shown the Parti Quebecois ahead in popular support by two points, and Leger's March 13 survey showed the party tied with the Liberals. The Journal de Montreal, which commissioned the surveys, said the new poll pointed to a majority Liberal government. The poll surveyed 3,692 respondents from March 21 to March 23.
A Forum poll in last Thursday's Toronto Star had found the provincial Liberals had a lead of as much as 13 percentage points over the Parti Quebecois.
(Reporting by Randall Palmer; Editing by Peter Galloway)