By Randall Palmer
OTTAWA, March 10 (Reuters) - The separatist Parti Quebecois is no longer in the lead in Quebec's provincial election campaign, though it would likely win the most seats in the April 7 vote if current support holds, according to a recent poll.
An Internet survey by the polling firm CROP released on Sunday night puts support for the ruling Parti Quebecois (PQ), which wants Quebec to separate from Canada, at 36 percent. This is the same level as the pro-Canada Liberal Party of Quebec, with the smaller Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) at 17 percent.
The poll was taken before a surprise announcement on Sunday that media mogul Pierre-Karl Peladeau, the former chief executive of Quebecor Inc, would be running on the PQ ticket for a seat in the provincial legislature.
The French arm of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp, which commissioned the CROP poll (http://link.reuters.com/qed57v), put the data out under a headline that said "PQ majority far from assured."
A previous poll released on March 5 at the start of the campaign showed the PQ ahead with 37 percent support to the Liberal Party's 35 percent.
The question of whether the separatists win a majority in the provincial legislature is critical because with it they would be in a stronger position to launch what could be Quebec's third referendum on whether to leave Canada.
The PQ won the last election 18 months ago but its hands were tied because it only had a minority of seats. The other two main parties oppose a referendum.
The Internet survey of 1,400 respondents, which is not fully random like a phone poll, was taken March 5-8.
Peladeau, who is also the controlling shareholder in media empire Quebecor Inc, said his decision to join the PQ reflected his deepest values, "that is, to make Quebec a country."
His move was all the more striking for the fact that the Quebec business community has traditionally favored keeping the mainly French-speaking province in Canada.
Peladeau controls 28 percent of the shares and 73 percent of the voting shares of Quebecor Inc, a company spokesman said. The company owns the largest newspaper in Quebec, the Journal de Montreal, and reaches a huge television news audience in the province via the French-language TVA network.
In announcing his PQ candidacy, he stepped down as Quebecor vice chairman and board member, and as chairman and board member of Quebecor Media and TVA Group Inc, and said he would no longer take part in any decisions on the corporation's daily or strategic management.(http://link.reuters.com/gud57v)
He also promised that if elected he would put his assets in a blind trust or under blind management.
The same CROP survey showed 61 percent would vote no in a referendum on independence, with 39 percent yes. Canada narrowly escaped breakup in 1995, when a vote on separation went down by 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent after a campaign that weighed on Canada's dollar and government bonds. The vote in 1980 lost by a larger margin, 59.6 percent to 40.4 percent.
Quebec Premier and PQ leader Pauline Marois has refused to say whether she would hold a third referendum if her party won a majority of seats, and she were reelected. Provincial Liberal leader Philippe Couillard latched onto Peladeau's remarks as showing the ballot question of the election.
"That's it. Do you want a referendum on separation, or do you want a government that will concentrate on the economy and jobs?" he said.
Though the PQ is tied with the provincial Liberals in the CROP poll, traditional voting patterns suggest it would still pick up more seats than the Liberals and thus would still be able to form at least a minority government if the polling results translated into votes.
That is because the provincial Liberal vote is more heavily concentrated in a smaller number of electoral districts, particularly in anglophone areas.
The Journal de Montreal estimated (http://link.reuters.com/hud57v) that the CROP results would give the PQ 53 to 73 of the 125 seats, with the Liberals winning 43 to 65 seats. (Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson; editing by Andrew Hay)