MONTREAL (AP) — Quebec voters gave a resounding no to the prospect of holding a third referendum on independence from Canada, handing the main separatist party in the French-speaking province one of its worst electoral defeats ever.
The Liberal Party, staunch supporters of Canadian unity, won Quebec's legislative elections Monday, while the pro-independence Parti Quebecois suffered a crushing defeat that puts its dream of a sovereign Quebec on hold for years.
The 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.
With all but a handful of polling stations reporting, the Liberals had 41.5 percent of the vote and took 70 seats in the 125-member National Assembly.
The Parti Quebecois had 25.4 percent and won 30 seats. The Coalition for Quebec's Future, which downplayed the sovereignty issue to focus on the economy, was close behind with 23.1 percent and 22 seats.
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 seat, and announced that she would step down as party leader.
"The defeat of our party tonight without a doubt saddens me as much as you, if not more than you," 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 measure that would ban public employees from wearing Muslim headscarves and other overt religious symbols.
But the strategy got derailed 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, who won his district, congratulated Liberal leader and new premier Philippe Couillard.
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, Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper won't have to worry about a national unity crisis as he heads toward the 2015 federal election.
Harper said 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."
Quebec has had two referendums on sovereignty. The last such vote, in 1995, narrowly rejected independence.
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.
Gillies contributed to this report from Toronto.