MONTREAL: Canada’s Quebec province voted out a separatist government, choosing a former neurosurgeon and his federalist Liberal party to lead a promised economic rally.
Television networks predicted a Liberal victory soon after the polls closed.
Preliminary results at 10:00 pm (0200 GMT Tuesday) showed Philippe Couillard’s Liberals in the lead with 34 percent of votes cast, followed by the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) with 22 percent.
The conservative Coalition Avenir Quebec and the leftist Quebec Solidaire rounded up 21 percent and six percent support, respectively.
Quebec’s first female premier, PQ leader Pauline Marois, also lost her seat in the contest, and resigned her post with the PQ.
Marois had called the snap elections 18 months into her first mandate, hoping to gain seats to form a majority government.
The main opposition Liberals’ new leader was untested and its usual economic platform was in shambles.
But what at first looked like a sure win for the PQ quickly turned round during one of the nastiest campaigns in Canadian history, with the Liberals jumping into the lead in the final stretch.
In order to form a majority government, a party needed to win at least 63 of the 125 seats in the Quebec legislature.
At 10:00 pm (0200 GMT), the Liberals had won or were leading in 70 electoral districts, up 21 seats from before the election, while the PQ was at 30.
“All of Quebec has won by choosing a stable government,” Couillard, 56, said in a victory speech. “Henceforth Quebec’s priorities are the economy and jobs. It has chosen unity and (a policy of) openness.”
“As premier of Quebec, I will lead a thriving and the only majority francophone society in North America,” he said, pledging to fight for “Quebec’s interests, and its attachment to the Canadian federation.”
Marois had kicked off the campaign pitching a secular values charter, which would ban public sector workers from wearing religious apparel, including headscarves, turbans and yarmulkes.
But the fight for the province’s six million voters suddenly turned to focus on whether a majority PQ government would hold a third referendum on Quebec independence in the next four years.
Quebecers rejected splitting from the rest of Canada in 1980 and 1995 referendums. And recent polling shows two out of three Quebecers do not want to reopen the thorny debate.
During the campaign, Couillard, warned of economic and social turmoil should a majority PQ government bent on Quebec independence win.
At the same time, he touted his party as best to spur a sluggish Quebec economy that has trailed other Canadian provinces in emerging from the Great Recession.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said: “The (election) results clearly demonstrate that Quebecers have rejected the idea of a referendum and want a government that will be focused on the economy and job creation.”
Analyst Sebastien Galy of the French bank Societe Generale noted that Quebec bonds rallied in advance of election day, as the PQ sagged in public opinion polls.
But they still trade at a discount versus its neighbor Ontario, he added.
Overall the Liberal win, Galy said, “will likely help give a positive impulse to Quebec’s economy after a mudslinging campaign the likes of which the deeply civil Quebec had not seen before.”
The Liberals under a former leader had ruled Quebec for nine years before being ousted by the PQ in the midst of a student uprising in spring 2012 over a proposed tuition hike.
Couillard’s victory notably comes one day before hearings are scheduled to resume into Quebec government corruption allegations, which had tarnished the previous Liberal administration. The loss for the PQ, meanwhile, marks its worst showing since its formation in 1970 in order to pursue Quebec independence.
It is also the first time in four decades that a Quebec government has failed to secure a second term in legislative elections.
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