Quebec sovereignty push in doubt after election defeat

Voters dealt a devastating blow to Quebec's decades-old independence movement in snap elections that saw its standard-bearer, the Parti Quebecois, drubbed by federalists.

But, while a Liberal victory means the province will not split from the rest of Canada in the next four years -- the length of the new government's mandate -- the notion of Quebec as a lone French-speaking nation in North America is far from dead.

"I would be surprised if 30 to 35 percent of Quebecers that support independence would suddenly stop believing in the dream," Ottawa University professor Robert Asselin told AFP.

The Parti Quebecois (PQ) leader Pauline Marois triggered the midterm elections 18 months into her first mandate hoping to gain seats to form a majority in the Canadian province.

But in a shocking turnaround, the PQ lost 24 seats while the federalist Liberals led by Philippe Couillard gained 21.

With 41.5 percent of votes cast for the Liberals and only 25.4 percent going to the PQ, the Liberals swept to power with a whopping 70 out 125 seats in the province's legislature.

Marois, who lost her own seat in the race, was left with little choice but to resign after nearly 40 years in Quebec politics -- both in government and opposition.

"You will understand that under the circumstances tonight I am leaving my post," she said in her concession speech late Monday, adding that she was "deeply saddened."

"For the supporters of the Parti Quebecois it's a sad evening indeed. Let me put it this way: We are grieving," PQ supporter Sebastien Lavoie told AFP.

Tuesday morning newspaper headlines shouted "Couillard knocks out the PQ" (Le Devoir) and "PQ crushed" (The Globe and Mail).

The loss for the PQ marked 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.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said: "The 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."

Money traders reacted by pushing up the Canadian dollar a half a cent against the US greenback.

And analysts predicted an uptick in the sluggish Quebec economy with the Liberals at the reigns, touting plans to open up the north to mining, stimulate forestry and energy exploration, and eliminate a multi-billion dollar deficit.

Laval University politics professor Francois Petry, however, said the election result was not the PQ's death knell.

Petry conceded the PQ "miscalculated Quebecers' patience for talk about the possibility of another referendum."

But he added that the key question of Quebec's "identity" either as a founding father of the Canadian federation or as an independent nation is still not resolved.

And so the sovereigntist movement will persist in some form or other, he said.

Quebecers twice 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.

For four decades, Quebec politics have been polarized between federalists and sovereigntists.

A former PQ cabinet minister, Francois Legault, quit to start his own party because he felt it was time to stop dreaming.

"The imaginary country harms in many ways the actual country," Legault said Tuesday.

His upstart Coalition Avenir Quebec won 22 seats in this election.

Marois had actually kicked off her 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.

Initially Marois happily volunteered her vision for a sovereign Quebec that would include no border controls ("Quebecers could still visit the Rocky Mountains") and continuing to use the Canadian dollar.

Couillard meanwhile warned of economic and social calamity should a majority PQ government bent on independence win.

Marois shot back that this election was about "electing a government" and not about Quebec's future within or outside Canadian federalism.

The PQ would not push a losing referendum, she said.

But she also could not rule out holding a referendum during a next mandate for fear of alienating diehard separatists.

Her equivocal statements hurt her campaign.

Going forward, the PQ will have to ask itself some "tough questions" about its priorities, notably Quebec independence, said Ottawa University professor Robert Asselin.

Independence is its "raison d'ĂȘtre, they cannot abandon it," he concluded.