While tonight's election results will offer a definitive view from Quebec voters on Jean Charest's Liberals, Pauline Marois's Parti Québécois and François Legault's Coaltion Avenir Québec, the results may not answer all the questions raised in this curious campaign that began Aug. 1.
Pierre Martin, a political science professor at the University of Montreal, sees a striking contradiction in the electorate.
In poll after poll, there seemed to be a willingness to embrace change, something Martin says is unusual. Yet, crunch the polling numbers and support for the parties didn't move all that much.
"Why is it that you have such fluidity and openness to change on one hand and such stability in general support for the parties on the other?" he asks.
He expects tonight's results will shed some light on that question, but may not offer the definitive answer: "That's a puzzle that will get part of the solution on Sept. 4 but not all the solution."
Beyond the overall result — and the tally of seats in the national assembly that had been led by the Liberals — there are several issues to watch in tonight's result.
Strength of Parti Québécois vote
The polls have been favouring Marois's aspiring Parti Québécois, suggesting the sovereigntist party is on track to form a minority government. There's an outside chance it could be a majority, something Martin says would give the party "a great deal more stability and credibility in its actions in government."
But that hardly means there will be instant referendum on Quebec sovereignty.
"Then the question will turn to whether [the Parti Québécois] is in a good position to build up support for sovereignty from this very, one might say tenuous, base," Martin said.
And, Martin suggests, that won't be easy.
"The majority of Quebecers have some sympathy for the notion," he said, "but for the moment it's only a minority that have the actual desire to go through the whole process of getting to sovereignty. You know the usual joke: everyone wants to go to paradise, nobody wants to die."
Getting to sovereignty would involve a referendum campaign, something that can be divisive and acrimonious.
"It also forces people internally to make choices that they're not necessarily comfortable with," Martin said.
Fate of the Liberal Party
If support for Charest's beleaguered Liberals crumbles, as some polls have suggested is likely, it will be a stunning — and historic — demise for the party.
"It's been the party in the centre of power in Quebec for the last century, and it was the one stable party and other parties sort of gravitated around it," Martin said. "At this point it looks possible for the party to actually fall apart and that's something that is of great consequence for the future of Quebec politics."
While electoral defeat in itself is hardly insurmountable, the Liberals have a few other storm clouds looming, including the imminent resumption of a provincial inquiry probing allegations of corruption in the construction industry.
Revelations trickling in from the Charbonneau commission might implicate party members and turn out to be even more damaging to the party's future, Martin says.
Add the potential for a leadership crisis that could follow if Charest loses his Sherbrooke seat, and Martin sees a difficult time ahead for the party.
"The Liberals will be more or less forced to support the Parti Québécois because they can't afford to get into an election in the short run," he said. "They will be very weak. They will be in the situation in which if they force an election, they might actually disappear."
Strength of Coalition Avenir Québec vote
Legault, a former Parti Québecois cabinet minister who has walked a very fine line on the sovereignty issue since the election was called, spent the final days of the campaign suggesting that the election had evolved into a two-way race between his upstart CAQ and the Parti Québecois.
Martin says the party has a "fairly good chance" of becoming the Official Opposition, something that "changes the dynamic," and reduces the Liberal role.
Martin sees the CAQ in a different light than the Action democratique du Quebec, which in 2007 found itself as the Official Opposition, but was later routed by voters and has since seen its remnants absorbed into the CAQ.
The CAQ is "essentially the same type of party but they do have a team that is in my view more prepared for at least for the role of official opposition than were the ADQ," says Martin.
"The ADQ was somehow caught by surprise and they had a fairly weak delegation at the national assembly whereas the CAQ in my view is better staffed."
Where the francophone vote goes
Much is made of the francophone vote in Quebec politics, and no wonder — it represents 82 per cent of the population. And this time round, there's been an obvious trend.
"For francophone voters, this election has clearly become a fight between Pauline Marois and François Legault," CBC's Bernard St-Laurent said.
By the fourth week of the campaign, a CROP poll was showing that francophone support for the Coalition Avenir Québec had grown at 30 per cent, compared with 36 per cent for the PQ.
"This means in the second half of the campaign, the CAQ has gained four points among francophone voters and the PQ has lost three," St-Laurent said.
"CROP pollster Youri Rivest says CAQ support has now reached the zone where it can win a substantial number of ridings," St-Laurent noted.
Martin cautions against looking at the francophone vote as a homogeneous block.
"You've got at least six or seven regions that show different electoral dynamics all at once, and that includes a great deal of variety across regions," he said, adding what happens in the 450 region around Montreal will be of great importance.
"That's where there's been the most demographic change," Martin said.
"That region is actually where the competition between the Parti Québecois and the CAQ is the strongest and that's where we're likely to see, if there's a strong and uniform shift in that region, that will definitely be determinant for the winning party or the government, that's for sure."
Charest's fate is his riding
The polls haven't been favouring Charest at home in Sherbrooke. But the veteran Liberal leader has shown he can survive adversity. He and Elsie Wayne were the last federal Conservatives standing in 1993 when the party went down to its historic defeat.
But tonight could be different.
Martin, who grew up in Sherbrooke a couple of blocks from Charest, considers him an "extraordinarily gifted politician."
"But he's never been wildly popular in Sherbrooke. It's always been a bit of a struggle for him to win by a convincing margin in his own riding, and if the party collapses at the provincial level, it's fairly likely it will also be difficult for him in Sherbrooke and probably facilitate the decision-making process on his part as to what to do in the future."
Martin says Charest's campaign actions have shown he knows the struggle he faces in his own riding.
"He has been quite aware of the situation because he spent almost twice as much time himself in Sherbrooke in this campaign than in any other campaign," Martin said. "I think he's well aware that he's got … a steep hill to climb, but people in Sherbrooke are used to climbing steep hills, so you never know."