MONTREAL – People in Quebec weighed returning a separatist party to power as they voted Tuesday in the French-speaking province, which could edge toward another referendum to break away from Canada if the Parti Quebecois ends nearly a decade of Liberal rule as expected.
Liberal leader Jean Charest, who has headed Quebec for nearly a decade, has consistently trailed in the polls to Pauline Marois' Parti Quebecois since he called an early election on Aug. 1. But most polls indicate Marois — who could become the province's first female premier — will not have enough votes to obtain a majority of the seats in the Quebec Assembly, undermining efforts to quickly hold a referendum on separation.
Quebec has held two referendums to split from Canada, in 1980 and 1995, the last narrowly rejecting independence.
Polls show there's little appetite for a new referendum and Marois herself has left much uncertainty about if and when one would be held under a PQ government. A recent poll showed support for independence under 30 percent, but analysts say voters are weary of the Liberals after three terms in office.
Quebec voters became tired of the Liberal party after corruption allegations surfaced against the party and student protests erupted this spring, said Bruce Hicks, a political science professor at Concordia University in Montreal.
"Quebecers tend to tire of the government and throw them out," he said. "It's sort of been the tradition in Quebec politics."
Voting was swift in many corners of the province, with more than half of voters casting ballots almost three hours before the polls closed at 8 p.m. EDT (1200 GMT), according to election officials.
Ballot counting started shortly afterward.
Walking out of a downtown Montreal polling station, Djessy Monnier, 41, said it was time for a change of government and he voted for the PQ. However, he said a third referendum shouldn't be a priority.
"Someone is going to have to find a solution to the student conflict," he said.
Voters elect representatives for seats in Quebec's 125 districts, a single party needs to obtain 63 seats to form a majority. Without a majority a party will need to form a coalition to govern.
When the legislature was dissolved the Liberals held 64 seats and the PQ 47 with other parties and independents dividing the rest of the seats. One seat was vacant.
"This could be a historic day as we could elect a first woman head of state in Quebec," Marois said before voting.
More autonomy for Quebec is high on the agenda for the PQ, which has said it would seek a transfer of powers from the federal government in areas like employment insurance and immigration policy. If those measures are rejected, the party believes it would have a stronger case for independence.
Visiting a candidate's constituency office north of Montreal, a crucial battle zone, Charest said Tuesday that Quebec's electors had to choose between "stability, jobs and the economy and those who would propose referendums and instability."
The campaign has been a three-way race involving a new party, Coalition Avenir Quebec, headed by former PQ minister Francois Legault, who says the separation issue has paralyzed the province for far too long.
Entering his polling station to vote, Legault said he was confident of the day's results. "This is a historic day, a new era is beginning," he said, adding it was time to "put aside disagreements on referendums and begin a new change, a cleanup and re-launch of Quebec."
Charest called the election more than a year before he had to, citing unrest in the streets due to this spring's student protests over tuition hikes. The most sustained student protests ever to take place in Canada began in February, resulting in about 2,500 arrests.
Polls showed the Quebecois were more likely to side with the government on the need for a tuition hike, but they were divided on an emergency law brought in place to limit demonstrations. Politicians and rights groups have said the legislation restricts the right to demonstrate.
Education was hardly a major topic during the campaign. Charest sought to focus voters on the need to maintain a stable government promoting job creation during troubled global economic times, instead of electing separatists who would create uncertainty. He stressed his province has largely been spared the economic hardships seen elsewhere in the West.
Charest has notably touted a northern development plan, the Plan Nord, which his party says would see $80 billion in public and private investment over the next 25 years in areas such as mining and energy, creating thousands of jobs annually and benefiting the entire province.
But Marois says the companies doing business wouldn't pay enough royalties. Legault said foreign companies mostly stood to benefit from the project.
Both PQ and the Liberals said they would make it harder for foreign companies to take over Canadian entities, an issue brought to the fore as North Carolina-based Lowe's seeks to take over Quebec-based hardware chain Rona.
Critics say Charest called the snap vote to avoid any embarrassment from an ongoing corruption inquiry into the province's construction industry, which is expected to resume after a summer break and has been largely overshadowed by the student protests.
But Hicks, the political scientist, still considers the election "up for grabs" considering the number of people who remain uncertain about how they will vote.
Two-thirds of Quebec voters want nothing to do with sovereignty, Hicks says. But even if it doesn't come to a new referendum, the election of a PQ government would make for tense relations with the federal government and a conservative prime minister who has difficulty appealing to the Quebecois.
"At the very least the rhetoric is going to increase but I suspect tensions and conflict will rise as well," he says