MONTREAL (AP) — The Liberal Party won Quebec's legislative elections Monday, in a crushing defeat for the main separatist party and major setback for the cause of independence in the French-speaking province.
With 97 percent of the precincts reporting, the Liberals, staunch supporters of Canadian unity, had 41.2 percent of the vote and won 70 of the National Assembly's 125 seats.
The separatist Parti Quebecois had 25.5 percent, and was on track to win 30 seats. The Coalition for Quebec's Future, which downplayed the sovereignty issue to focus on the economy, was closed behind with 23.6 percent and 22 seats.
Those results will allow the Liberals to form a majority government, less than 18 months after voters had booted the party from power for the first time in nine years amid allegations of corruption within the party.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who led a minority government, called the snap elections last month in hopes of securing a majority for her PQ party. But the campaign stirred up speculation that a PQ majority would ultimately lead to another referendum on independence from Canada, an idea that has lacked support in recent years.
Fears of a referendum galvanized supporters of the Liberals. Marois suffered a humiliating defeat, even losing her own district seat, and announced that she would step down as party leader.
"The defeat of our party tonight makes me sad," Marois told supporters. "I am leaving my post."
Marois had tried to mute talk of another referendum on independence. She had hoped instead to make the election about the PQ's proposed "charter of values," a controversial but popular law that would ban public employees from wearing Muslim headscarves and other overt religious symbols.
But the strategy backfired early in the campaign when one PQ candidate, multi-millionaire media baron Pierre Karl Peladeau, burst onto the scene with a fist-pumping declaration of his commitment to "make Quebec a country."
Peladeau congratulated Liberal leader and new premier Philippe Couillard.
"We have mixed feelings. The result throughout Quebec is not the one we would have wished," said Peladeau, who won his district.
Couillard, a former brain surgeon and ex-Liberal health minister, has vowed to return the Canadian flag to the legislature. The PQ has always removed the flag when elected.
With the PQ out, it means Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper won't have to worry about a national unity crisis as he heads toward the 2015 federal election.
Quebec has had two referendums on sovereignty. The last such vote, in 1995, narrowly rejected independence.
Quebec, which is 80 percent of 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.
But many Quebecois have long dreamed of an independent Quebec, as they at times haven't felt respected and have worried about the survival of their language in English-speaking North America.
John Zucchi, a professor of history at Montreal's McGill University, said the PQ defeat is a serious blow to the separatist movement.
"I think separatism is going to go on the backburner for quite a while, perhaps a generation," he said. "In these difficult times the people of Quebec have to face many serious issues regarding work, the economy, regarding an uncertain future and they know that separatism is not the magic solution."
The election outcome is also likely to bury the PQ's hopes of passing the charter of values, which the Liberals oppose.
Marois had hoped that the proposed law would electrify French-speaking voters in swing regions, where many feel the bill aims to preserve Quebec's fundamental values, including the equality of men and women and the separation of church and state.
The law would forbid government employees from wearing Muslim headscarves, Jewish yarmulkes, Sikh turbans and larger-than-average crucifixes. It would also prohibit citizens from covering their faces while receiving public services, such as applying for driver's licenses, for the purpose of identification.
Protests against the proposal have drawn thousands of Muslims, Sikhs and Jews to Montreal's streets to denounce what they call an affront on religious freedom.
Pierre Martin, a political science professor at the University of Montreal, said the charter is just not a priority for the Quebecois.
"This issue was actually very low on the priorities of Quebec voters. It was actually a very weak issue for the Parti Quebecois to campaign on," Martin said.
Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau applauded the Quebecois for saying no to the charter.
"I had the utmost confidence that Quebec voters would reject the negative, divisive politics of Ms. Marois' proposed plan," Trudeau said in a statement. "I am proud that my fellow Quebeckers have chosen unity and acceptance as we move forward together."
The provincial Liberal party of Quebec was previously haunted by allegations of corruption that tainted their nine years in power. But Couillard hammered away at the referendum issue and framed the election as a choice between uncertainty and stability.
Marois became Quebec's first female premier in Quebec's last election in September 2012, but her victory rally was marred by a deadly shooting.
A man opened fire outside the Montreal theater where the rally was being held, killing a stage hand and wounding another. The masked gunman, wearing a bathrobe, was shown on television ranting and shouting "The English are waking up!" in French as police dragged him away. Richard Henry Bain has been charged with first-degree murder and is awaiting trial.
Gillies contributed to this report from Toronto.