The party's share of seats in the legislature could make it difficult to table referendum plans or even advance less ambitious aspects of its independence agenda.
The PQ's very first act in the legislature — tabling an inaugural speech — will also have to be designed with the intention of gaining opposition support.
The last time the Parti Quebecois took power in 1994, then-premier Jacques Parizeau's inaugural address included no less than 15 references to sovereignty and five more to creating a new "country."
It's unclear the PQ could muscle that kind of document through the legislature.
With just 32 per cent of the popular vote, and nine seats shy of a majority, the PQ will now be forced to tailor its agenda around the wishes of other parties. It's an unfamiliar position for the PQ, which had won four elections in its past but never a minority.
"Quebecers made their choice," premier-designate Pauline Marois said in a tragedy-marred victory speech that was cut short by shootings in the building.
"We will respect their choice by governing with all others elected... We will find the necessary compromises."
Before the incident during her speech, PQ faithful serenaded Marois with the old independentist chant, "We want a country!" and they also sang, "Gens du pays," the unofficial anthem of Quebec nationalists.
But a minority government is unlikely to be able to realize such lofty dreams, said one political scientist. He said those limitations extend beyond sovereignty to other parts of the PQ agenda — like, for example, applying language laws to colleges.
"They needed a majority to take the controversial legislation and put it in place and they don't have that at this stage," said Bruce Hicks of Concordia University.
She could soldier on on the federal-provincial front.
Marois did say in her speech that she will attempt to "advance Quebec's aspirations" and seek more power over issues of concern to the province. Her platform called for a transfer of power over Employment Insurance, copyright law and foreign aid, among other things.
The platform also proposed creating a new "Quebec citizenship" that would test newcomers' French, and gauge whether they could run for political office in the province — a move that could create a showdown with the Supreme Court.
Marois could still fight such battles, Hicks said.
"Either Quebec will gain more autonomy or will be rebuffed and then can go to Quebec voters and say they're not respected by Canada and that it's time to leave," Hicks said.
The Harper government moved swiftly to downplay expectations. In a post-election statement, Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned that he hoped to work with the new government on issues that matter, like the economy, and not get bogged down in old constitutional quarrels.
Over time, Marois could try using federal rejections to push for a stronger mandate and ask voters for a majority that would revive her sovereignty agenda. But, until then, there's a limit to what she can legally achieve, said a constitutional expert.
Political scientist Ned Franks said she couldn't even hold a referendum without getting the legislature to approve the question.
"It's always been done that way before and I can't imagine initiating a step so fundamental to the democratic process without getting the authority of the legislature," Franks said.
Franks said Tuesday's popular vote is most telling — and it reveals that the so-called winning conditions simply aren't there.
"I don't consider 32 or 33 per cent of the vote as a winning condition for a referendum," Franks said. Combined with Quebec solidaire and Option nationale, pro-independence parties received 40 per cent of the vote.
"I'm not saying we can breathe easy about a referendum there but I think the people of Quebec are not indicating in any way that they want a referendum."
Tuesday's seat numbers, however, may not be set in stone.
Hicks said the PQ could look to the new Coalition party for potential floor-crossers. The new party includes a number of ex-Pequistes, and lifelong sovereigntists, who could be wooed.
"Being a government you can offer goodies to attract people from other political parties and there are people in the Coalition Avenir Quebec who are former Pequistes," said Hicks.
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