QUEBEC CITY – Quebec's separatist party faces doubts about its very survival after voters solidly rejected the main purpose of its existence — making the French-speaking province an independent country.
Voters ousted the Party Quebecois from power in provincial legislative elections largely centered on the independence debate. The PQ got just 25 percent of the popular vote in Monday's election, its worst showing since it first participated in elections in 1970, shortly after its founding with the explicit goal of breaking away from Canada.
It was a shocking blow for a party that took power in a minority government just 18 months ago. The Liberals had led the province for nine years, but suffered from corruption allegations.
Premier Pauline Marois had called the snap elections in the belief that her pro-independence Parti Quebecois could win a parliamentary majority, buoyed by the popularity of its proposed "charter of values" that would ban public employees from wearing Muslim headscarves and other overt religious symbols.
Instead, the Quebec Liberals, staunch supporters of Canadian unity, came away with the majority in Monday's vote, winning 70 seats in the 125-member National Assembly.
Chantal Herbert, a columnist for the Toronto Star, called it a "life-threatening defeat" for the Parti Quebecois.
With only 30 seats in the legislature, the PQ now faces four years in opposition to ponder its future. Everything from its leftist ideology to its proposed secular charter is up in the air.
Francois Legault, a former PQ member who now leads the smaller Coalition for Quebec's Future said the results will force his old party to do what he did five years ago — ponder its fundamental belief in an independent Quebec.
"I think these people will have to go through the same reflection I did in 2009," said Legault, whose party won 22 seats after pledging to set aside the referendum question to focus on more pressing issues, such as the economy.
Quebec's identity has been contentious since the 1760s when the British completed their takeover of what was then called New France. In the 1960s, the Parti Quebecois was formed under the leadership of a TV commentator-turned-politician named Rene Levesque, who would go on to rule the province for nine years.
Quebec, which is 80 percent French-speaking, has plenty of autonomy already. The province of 8.1 million sets its own income tax, has its own immigration policy favoring French speakers, and has legislation prioritizing French over English. Twice, voters have rejected sovereignty, though only by a razor-thin margin in a 1995 referendum.
In recent years support for independence has fallen, and the PQ has headed a Quebec government for just 18 months out of the past decade.
Marois herself tried to downplay the sovereignty issue during the campaign, insisting that her government would only push for a referendum when Quebecers were ready and trying to keep the focus on the charter of values. The strategy floundered after one prominent PQ candidate, media mogul Pierre Karl Peladeau, passionately declared his dream of making Quebec an independent country.
At a rally Monday night, Peladeau and other PQ leaders insisted they would not give up that quest.
"We will never abandon it — never!" Bernard Drainville, a cabinet member in the Marois government, shouted before leading the party faithful in a chant of "We want a country, we want a country!"
The PQ's first order of business will be to elect a new leader. Drainville and Peladeau, who won his seat, are among the potential candidates. Marois, who lost her own seat, stepped down as party leader immediately on Monday night.
Critics of the sovereignty movement were swift to cast Tuesday's election outcome as essentially another failed referendum on independence.
"This is the best political news for Canadian federalists in a generation and a crushing blow to a party that has been pushing its secessionist vision for almost half a century and still can't make the sale," the Toronto Star wrote in its editorial Tuesday. "Three times rebuffed, the PQ is dazed and diminished."
The election campaign was expected to focus on the proposed secular charter, which has strong support among French-speakers outside Quebec's big cities. But the election outcome suggested even that wasn't a priority for many Quebecers who are more concerned about the economy, health care and education.
"It's just not something that interests me," said Anne-Sophie Martel, a 21-year-old university student, sitting at a Quebec City coffee shop. "Jobs, the economy — that's really what interests me."
Quebec Liberal leader Philippe Couillard, a former provincial health minister and brain surgeon who now becomes premier, attributed the PQ's loss in part to a "tectonic shift" in priorities that he said he noticed while traveling around the province.
"I really felt during the campaign that the young generation — the youth of Quebec — is not at all attracted by anything that limits us or prevents us from having broader horizons," Couillard said at Quebec City news conference.
Antonia Maioni, a political science professor at McGill University, said the separatists cannot be completely counted out, even if Quebecers haves no appetite for another referendum on independence anytime soon. Many nationalist sympathizers simply switched to the Coalition for Quebec's future, she said.
Even Couillard conceded the point.
"There is no such thing as the sovereignty movement being dead," he said.