OTTAWA (Reuters) - Quebec's ruling Liberals said on Tuesday they were delighted by victories in two by-elections that helped further damage the cause of separatists who want independence for the mainly French-speaking Canadian province.
Monday's elections, held to fill vacancies in the provincial legislature, had been billed as an opportunity for Quebecers to vent their frustration with the Liberal government over how it was handling the economic crisis.
The separatist Parti Quebecois had high hopes of winning in the eastern town of Riviere-du-Loup, where they ran a star candidate. But the lost there to the Liberals is another sign the party is having trouble putting across its message.
"We are very happy with the results ... Quebecers spoke in one voice to ask the government to continue on the same course," Liberal Premier Jean Charest told a televised news conference in Quebec City.
The Liberals won a majority in last December's provincial election, with Charest saying he was the best leader to steer the province of 7.5 million through the recession.
Shortly after, however, the government was rocked by news that the province's main pension fund had racked up multibillion-dollar losses. Critics also complained the Liberals underestimated the effects of the downturn.
The criticism has done little to dent Charest's popularity, however. A CROP poll in La Presse newspaper on Saturday put the Liberals ahead of the Parti Quebecois by 42 percent to 37 percent.
The Liberals now have 67 seats in the 125-seat legislature. The Parti Quebecois has 51, the right-leaning Action democratique du Quebec has six while the left-wing Quebec solidaire has one.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson