MONTREAL — Quebecers charted a new course for their province Monday by giving the seven-year-old Coalition Avenir Quebec a majority mandate in an election result that could create waves beyond its borders.
Quebec, Canada's second most-populous province, has joined the even bigger province of Ontario in voting for change following about 15 years of Liberal governments.
In doing so, the right-leaning Coalition shattered nearly a half-century of two-party political rule in Quebec with a majority government that will redraw the province's electoral map.
The party was elected or leading in 74 of the province's 125 ridings, compared with 32 for the incumbent Liberals.
Coalition Leader Francois Legault guided his troops to victory following a 39-day campaign, during which he urged Quebecers to support him as the candidate for change.
"Today, Quebecers chose hope, hope for a government that will bring positive change,'' he told supporters in his victory speech.
"Tonight, we will celebrate the victory, then we will rest a few hours. But starting tomorrow (Tuesday) we will roll up our sleeves and we will work to do more, to do better for all Quebecers.''
The win delivered something Quebec hasn't seen in 48 years — a provincial government headed by a party other than the Liberals or the Parti Quebecois.
In terms of popular support, the Coalition had about 38 per cent, compared with about 25 per cent for the Liberals.
Legault's party surged to victory, leaving the Liberals in second place, Quebec solidaire in a distant third and the PQ fourth.
With support for independence sliding, the PQ is now facing an existential crisis. The party has steadily watched its backing slip after spending about 20 of the last 48 years in office.
To be considered an official party, the PQ needed either 20 per cent of the popular vote on Monday or 12 seats. With about 17 per cent and nine seats, it looked as though it would get neither and would even trail Quebec solidaire.
The numbers began flowing in following a tightly fought campaign that many had predicted would shake up the political landscape.
It was more like an earthquake.
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Legault, a former businessman and co-founder of Air Transat, won his riding of L'Assomption, while Quebec solidaire co-spokespeople Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and Manon Masse were both elected in their Montreal ridings.
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard salvaged some pride by being elected in Roberval, about 250 kilometres north of Quebec City, while PQ Leader Jean-Francois Lisee suffered a double blow by also losing his Montreal riding.
That prompted Lisee to announce his resignation in his post-election speech.
In his concession speech, Couillard said he would take a few days to ponder his political future.
"I wish his government all the success that Quebec deserves — despite our significant differences of opinion, we are all Quebecers,'' he said after congratulating Legault on his victory.
"We must stay united — we are stronger united."
It's unclear what Legault's win will mean for Quebec's relationship with Ottawa.
Couillard, a staunch federalist, had smooth relations with Trudeau's Liberals.
But there have already been signs of potential friction between Legault, a former sovereigntist and PQ cabinet minister, and the federal government.
Controversy over comments by Legault's wife
Last week, a recording of Legault's wife, Isabelle Brais, captured her telling a party meeting last month that while Trudeau's father, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was "brilliant," his son is not.
She described the younger Trudeau as incompetent and suggested a Coalition government could have strained ties with his federal government. Brais later apologized.
Legault declined to say whether he endorsed his wife's comments about the prime minister, saying she's "an independent woman who has her opinions, who is spontaneous, who apologized."
Trudeau issued a statement Monday to offer his "sincere congratulations" to Legault on the win.
"I look forward to working with Premier Legault to make Quebec, a province we are all proud of, an even better place to live," said Trudeau, who represents a Montreal riding.
"Together, we will work to make the province even more dynamic and prosperous, to the benefit of all Quebecers."
Looking ahead, the Coalition and Trudeau's Liberals could also find themselves at odds over Legault's pledges on immigration.
He grabbed national headlines during the campaign when he proposed to lower Quebec's annual immigration levels by 20 per cent. Legault also said he wanted to force newcomers to pass French and values tests within three years of their arrival — or face removal from the province.
Responsibility, however, for such expulsions would fall to the federal government.
In his victory speech, Legault appeared to address the issue of immigration: "I intend to govern for all Quebecers — all Quebecers."
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Legault's win follows Ontario Premier Doug Ford's majority victory in June. Ford's Progressive Conservatives defeated the Ontario Liberals to end their run of 15 years in power.
In Quebec, the Coalition win ended nearly 15 years of continuous Liberal rule.
The Liberals were elected in 2003 and remained in power with the exception of a PQ minority government between 2012 and 2014.
Voters looking for change
The Coalition was able to gather significant support, even though Quebec's economy surged in recent years with the Liberals in power.
Opinion polls, however, had suggested for months that voters were looking for a change — and, as party history goes in Quebec, Legault's victory represented change.
The Union Nationale won the 1966 election and held power until 1970. Since then, however, it's been a two-party show headlined by the Liberals and the PQ.
The emergence of Legault's party, which won just 22 seats in 2014 to finish third, came in large part at the expense of the PQ.
The PQ's raison d'etre — Quebec sovereignty — has lost its lustre with voters and for the first time in decades, talk of a referendum on independence was not a ballot-box issue.
Faced with the shift in public sentiment, Lisee entered the race with a vow not to hold a referendum on sovereignty in his first mandate as premier.
"We absorbed a shock tonight, but we stand up straight and strong because Quebec still needs the Parti Quebecois,'' Lisee said.
"For as long as there are battles to fight for justice, equality, environment, secularism, French — Quebec will need the Parti Quebecois. For as long as Quebec isn't a country, Quebec will need the Parti Quebecois.''
We absorbed a shock tonight, but we stand up straight and strong because Quebec still needs the Parti Quebecois.PQ Leader Jean-Francois Lisee
The PQ finished one behind the upstart Quebec solidaire, which expanded its reach beyond its urban roots of central Montreal.
"Today, our movement is bigger, stronger, more resolute than ever,'' said Masse.
"Quebec solidaire is not the party of Le Plateau-Mont-Royal. Quebec solidaire is the party of the people who want things to change for real.''
The Liberals had 68 seats at the legislature's dissolution, while the PQ had 28, the Coalition 21 and Quebec solidaire three. There were five Independents.
At the end of the campaign, two leaders had stayed ahead of the pack: Legault and Couillard.
Couillard had touted his government's balanced budgets as well as the province's falling unemployment rate and strong economic performance.
Both leaders faced criticism at times: Couillard for having reduced health and education budgets early in his mandate, and Legault for his controversial immigration plan.
While Legault began the campaign as the front-runner, the party's lead dwindled as the Liberals gained ground later on.
With the PQ promising to not hold a sovereignty referendum in the next four years, Lisee's campaign focused on immigration, health care and the best way to spend the province's billions in budget surpluses.