Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois
Credits: CHANTAL POIRIER/QMI AGENCY
MONTREAL - Voters returned Parti Quebecois separatists to power for the first time in 14 years Tuesday but with a minority that might force them to shelve their sovereignty plans for now.
Pauline Marois becomes the first female premier in the province's history and has promised to request an immediate meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. She said she'll demand that Ottawa repatriate several powers to Quebec in areas of language, culture and employment insurance.
The PQ was elected or leading in 56 of Quebec's 125 ridings with the Liberals a surprise second with 48 seats following predictions that they might be decimated after nine years in power. But Jean Charest lost his own seat in Sherbrooke, Que., throwing his 28-year career in the balance.
The prime minister congratulated Marois in a statement but also tried to cool any talk of sovereignty referendums.
"We do not believe that Quebecers wish to revisit the old constitutional battles of the past," said Harper.
"Our government will remain focused on jobs, economic growth and sound management of the economy. We believe that economic issues and jobs are also the priorities of the people of Quebec. With this in mind, we will continue to work with the government of Quebec toward our common goals."
Charest lost his seat to PQ candidate Serge Cardin by more than 2,600 votes in the Sherbrooke riding. It was a bitter result that left supporters grim-faced and in shock at a Liberal rally in the town that Charest has represented, at the federal and provincial level, since 1984.
The centre-right Coalition Avenir Quebec, led by former PQ minister Francois Legault, was also disappointed.
The CAQ didn't make the breakthrough many expected and the party trailed in third place with 19 seats but Legault reminded supporters that the party was only founded last November.
"In only nine months, we succeeded in founding a new political party and in fighting a fierce political battle," Legault told a rally in Repentigny, just east of Montreal.
"The results this evening show that the Coalition for the Future of Quebec is here to stay."
Polls had indicated CAQ support was soft and the surveys also indicated 28% of voters were undecided as of late last week.
The PQ maintained a four-point lead in the polls throughout the 35-day campaign and they faced unexpected battles from the Liberals in the beltway surrounding Montreal and suburban Laval.
Nearly two million mainly-francophone voters live in the 450 zone, a reference to the region's area code.
Marois was the first of the three main party leaders to be re-elected, winning her riding in the Quebec City area.
Earlier in the day, as she cast her ballot, she refused to talk about sovereignty but instead spoke about her date with history.
"For the first time a woman would be elected as Quebec's head of state," the veteran separatist said as she left a community centre polling station.
"I've been preparing for this for 30 years," added Marois, who first ran for the PQ leadership in 1985 before losing to Jacques Parizeau.
Charest spent Tuesday morning visiting several Liberal candidates in the Montreal area who, like him, were in danger of losing their seats.
He then travelled to his home riding of Sherbrooke, in the Eastern Townships, to cast his ballot. Charest was greeted by protesters outside the elementary school where he cast his ballot.
He then addressed reporters in a raspy voice, suffering from laryngitis that left him barely audible.
"Everyone has the right to vote, including those who speak loudly," he said. "We hope that this will be a strong moment for our democracy."
Legault also voted in his riding northeast of Montreal, expressing confidence about a major breakthrough that didn't end up happening.