December 9, 2008 / 1:53 AM / 9 years ago

Liberals take Quebec vote, but separatists gain

<p>Quebec Premier and Liberal leader Jean Charest (C) and his wife Michele Dionne (L) greet supporters at his election night rally in Sherbrooke, Quebec, December 8, 2008. REUTERS/Shaun Best</p>

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Quebec separatists were in an upbeat mood on Tuesday, despite a third consecutive election defeat, saying the Parti Quebecois’s surprisingly strong performance was good reason to be optimistic.

The party, which wants the largely French-speaking province of Quebec to break away from Canada, won 51 of the 125 seats in the provincial legislature in Monday’s election, up from the 36 seats it had held previously. It also won 35 percent of the popular vote -- around 5 percentage points more than expected.

The ruling Liberals won 66 seats, up from the 48 they won in March 2007, and will form a majority government. They took 42 percent of the popular vote.

The Liberals and the Parti Quebecois gained at the expense of the right-leaning Action democratique du Quebec, which came close to winning in 2007. This time the ADQ won just seven seats, down from the 39 it held when the vote was called.

With the Liberal Party winning a majority, the province will likely sideline any talk of separation from Canada for the next four years or so.

Yet Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois took heart from her party’s best performance since 1998 -- the last time it won power in the huge province of 7.5 million people.

“We’re getting down to work again because we’ve seen a real revival of our political movement. I‘m at the head of a party that is in good health financially and organizationally,” she told a televised news conference.

The separatist movement reached a peak in 1995, when the province’s then-Parti Quebecois government held a referendum on separation from Canada, which failed narrowly.

Since then, support for Quebec independence has gradually fallen below 40 percent. Marois had promised during the campaign that, if her party formed the government, she would not push for an immediate referendum.

Liberal premier Jean Charest called the election less than two years into his mandate on the grounds he needed a majority in the legislature to tackle what he described as “the economic storm” hitting Quebec.

“The issue of the election was the economy, and is still the economy. That hasn’t changed. That transcends all other issues,” Charest told a news conference on Tuesday.

He said that, as far as he was concerned, Marois had clearly put independence on hold for a long time.

“(She) deliberately chose to put to the side the referendum, not just for one mandate but for two or three mandates,” he said.

Several political observers linked the Parti Quebecois’s late surge to vociferous anti-separatist comments in Ottawa last week by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The Bloc Quebecois -- the federal sister party of the Parti Quebecois -- has promised to support plans for a coalition government that the federal Liberals and New Democrats want to create to replace the minority Conservatives. Harper reacted by railing against the separatist forces, offending many people in the province who saw it as an attack on Quebec.

Marois said it was too early to tell whether Harper’s comments had helped her party.

Harper congratulated Charest, saying in a statement that Ottawa “remains determined to build a strong Quebec within a united Canada”. Charest’s win seems likely to blunt any criticism that the prime minister had indirectly aided the separatist camp.

With additional reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Rob Wilson

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