Canada’s Quebec province on Monday 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.
With all but a handful of polling stations reporting, Philippe Couillard’s Liberals had 41.5 percent of the vote and took 70 seats in the 125-member National Assembly.
The Parti Quebecois (PQ) had 25.4 percent and won 30 seats. The Coalition for Quebec’s Future, which downplayed the sovereignty issue to focus on the economy, was close behind with 23.1 percent and 22 seats, while the leftist Quebec Solidaire had 6 percent.
Quebec’s first female premier, PQ leader Pauline Marois, also lost her seat in the contest, and resigned her post with the party.
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 economic platform was in shambles.
However, 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, up from 21 seats before the election.
“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 6 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.
Recent polling shows two out of three Quebecers do not want to reopen the thorny debate.
The loss for the PQ marks its worst showing since its formation in 1970 with the goal of pursuing Quebec independence.
Additional reporting by AP