The Parti Québécois’ hopes of using wedge politics to rekindle the sovereignty debate were strongly rejected by Quebeckers Monday night, with voters giving the Liberals a majority government.

Pauline Marois, who lost in her own riding of Charlevoix-Côte-de-Beaupré, immediately announced her resignation as party leader.

The Liberals’ success capped a scorched-earth election campaign that featured mud-slinging, referendum rhetoric and much turbulence over identity, language and ethics.

The Liberals garnered 41.5 per cent of the popular vote and won 70 of 125 ridings. The Parti Québecois got only 30 ridings and had 25 per cent of the vote — the worst result for the PQ in 44 years, since the party’s maiden election in 1970.

Looking forward to four years in power with a respectable majority, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said Quebeckers have given themselves a stable government.

Alluding to the electoral nastiness of the last month, he said Quebec is composed not just of francophones but also anglophones and immigrants. “I want to tell them that the time of wounds is behind us. Be welcome, you are here at your home.”

He added in English, “We are all Quebeckers.”

Mr. Couillard also alluded to the recent revelations about questionable conduct by party officials and a police investigation into fundraising operations during its previous mandates.

“I pledge to lead a government that’s responsible, competent, honest and transparent,” Mr. Couillard said.

After calling Mr. Couillard to congratulate him, Ms. Marois said she would step down as party leader.

“We had so much to offer, so much to accomplish for Quebeckers,” Ms. Marois said.

She spoke about the pride and resilience of the people of Quebec and the need to foster the French language, adding that “Quebeckers are a beautiful people, a welcoming, generous, open people.”

In an odd moment before Ms. Marois’ speech, three elected candidates, who happened to be potential contenders for her job, Bernard Drainville, Jean-François Lisée and rookie Pierre Karl Péladeau, were given turns at the podium, making defiant speeches.

“We’ll never give up,” Mr. Drainville said.

Mr. Couillard, who took a personal gamble by running in the traditionally Péquiste riding of Roberval, won in his district.

François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec, which had hopes of overtaking the PQ, remained in third position, leading in 22 ridings only despite carrying more than 23 per cent of the votes.

With the PQ heading into a time of turmoil, Mr. Legault said it was his CAQ party that would be a “strong, vigilant and constructive” opposition.

A month ago, Ms. Marois started the campaign with high hopes she could clinch a majority after 18 months of minority government. She even talked of tabling a white paper to reassess Quebec’s future in Canada.

Instead, her campaign unravelled from the moment she announced her star candidate, Mr. Péladeau, whose fist-pumping declaration of allegiance to Quebec sovereignty played into the Liberals’ strategy.

Mr. Péladeau, whose candidacy polarized left-leaning separatist voters, was expected to win in the riding of Saint-Jérôme, consigning the one-time ministerial hopeful to a stint in the opposition benches.

The result was a best-case scenario for the federal government, which had already braced for a PQ majority that could have sparked a new round of constitutional battles.

“The results clearly demonstrate that Quebeckers have rejected the idea of a referendum and want a government that will be focused on the economy and job creation,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement on Monday night. “We look forward to working with the new government of Quebec on those priorities.”

The Prime Minister went on to thank PQ Leader Pauline Marois “for her public service.”

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair – a former Quebec Liberal minister – offered his congratulations to Mr. Couillard, his former colleague.

“The NDP has taken note of the people’s desire to end the old quarrels, and the new premier can count on us to promote Quebec’s interests in Ottawa, as part of our effort to build a more just and prosperous Canada for all,” Mr. Mulcair said in a statement.

In a statement, federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau applauded Quebeckers for voting against a third referendum, and for defeating the proposed Charter of Values that would have prevented government workers from wearing overt religious symbols.

“As I have said since last summer, I had the utmost confidence that Quebec voters would reject the negative, divisive politics of Ms. Marois’ proposed plan,” Mr. Trudeau said. “I am proud that my fellow Quebeckers have chosen unity and acceptance as we move forward together.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Apr. 07 2014, 8:00 PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Apr. 08 2014, 9:01 AM EDT