The separatist Parti Quebecois, virtually written off just months ago, has made a rebound in public support and again has a shot at winning the next provincial election, widely expected this year.
A Leger Marketing poll published in the Journal de Montreal on Thursday has the PQ, which wants the French-speaking province to split from Canada, now tied at 29 percent support with Quebec Premier Jean Charest's Liberal Party, which opposes separation.
It's possible to have a PQ government with these numbers, pollster Jean-Marc Leger said. With these kinds of results anything is possible.
And the bloom has already come off the rose of the briefly dominant Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), or the Coalition for the Future of Quebec, headed by a former separatist cabinet minister who says he does not support a new referendum on independence.
The poll has the centre-right CAQ, which had captured the imagination of voters as a new alternative to the two mainline parties, at 28 percent support.
As recently as December, the CAQ had polled at 37 percent, compared with 22 percent for the Liberals and 24 percent for the PQ. The PQ had been down to 18 percent in October.
Though the CAQ says Quebec sovereignty is not on its agenda, Charest has drawn attention to the fact that three of its nine members in the Quebec legislature are former PQ separatists.
Charest's Liberals won a majority in the December 2008 election, their third straight mandate. Technically he does not have to hold a new election until December 2013, but he is widely expected to call one this year.
The separatists lost referendums in 1980 and 1995, the latter by just 1.2 percentage points. PQ leader Pauline Marois has been noncommittal on whether she would call a third vote if she took power.
Leger said that with the current numbers, nobody would win a majority of seats. If the PQ won the most seats but still less than half, its minority government's survival would likely be in jeopardy if it tried to mount a referendum.
The sudden deflating of the CAQ's dominance is a reflection of a volatile mood among the Quebec electorate, which has frequently swung in great numbers to one party or another before abandoning it. Leger calls it Quebec's big-bang politics.
In Canada's federal election last May, Quebec voters swung overwhelmingly to the New Democratic Party, till then the smallest party in Parliament. However, the NDP's support among Quebecers has dropped sharply in subsequent months.
The Leger poll was conducted over the Internet with 2009 people from February 10-12. Such a sample size is considered accurate to within 2.2 percentage points 95 percent of the time.
(Reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Rob Wilson)