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QUEBEC VOTERS TO TAKE GIANT STEP TOWARD SEPARATION OR COOPERATION

Quebec voters take what could be their first step toward independence when they vote for a new provincial government Monday.

The choice has never been clearer in this French-speaking province of 7 million people. One party promises to break up Canada by creating a new country on the United States' northern border; the other pledges to work out provincial problems within the Canadian federation.A confident Jacques Parizeau, leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois, was buoyed up by a long string of polls that show his party will oust the incumbent Liberals, led by Premier Daniel Johnson.

Parizeau, 64, even joked that the grueling 50-day election campaign - a mere blip on the political screen by American standards - was starting to turn the electorate off.

"I have the impression that when voters see our heads on TV these days they want to zap us," Parizeau said, announcing he would take Saturday off and end his campaign in his home district on Sunday.

Johnson, for his part, lost his voice. A recurring case of laryngitis forced him to cancel two of four scheduled broadcast interviews.

"My vocal chords aren't working as well as (Parizeau's), because I'm answering questions," said Johnson, 49. "Jacques Parizeau has consistently hidden the cost of separation."

Parizeau has pledged that if his party, known as the PQ, wins and forms the next provincial government, it will hold a referendum on independence within a year.

If he is successful in the referendum, he would chop Canada in two. An independent Quebec would cut off the Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland from the rest of Canada.

The Canadian constitution doesn't deal with the issue of secession of one of its provinces, but if Quebec wanted to secede it's unlikely the federal government would try to stop it.

A poll published Saturday in The Gazette, Montreal's English-language daily, found that 46 percent of the voters favor the PQ to 43 percent for the Liberals. In real terms, that would translate into a large majority of PQ seats in the 125-seat Quebec legislature.