QUEBEC CITY (AP) — Quebec's separatist party faces doubts about its survival after voters solidly rejected its main goal of 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.
It was a shocking blow for a party that took power in a minority government just 18 months ago.
Premier Pauline Marois had called the snap elections believing 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.
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.
But in recent years support for independence has fallen.
Marois herself tried to downplay the sovereignty issue during the campaign but 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!"
But even PQ veterans conceded the party will need to re-assess its approach after what many described as the province's most vicious election campaign in years.
"The verdict is in... we made our mistakes," said Francois Gendron, the longest-serving PQ member, who was deputy premier under Marois. Gendron partly blamed a profusion of negative media coverage for the result. He said the PQ will need to go through a transition period but will rebuild.
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.
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.