Separatist party wins power in Quebec

A separatist party won power in the French-speaking province of Quebec on Tuesday night, but another referendum to break away from Canada isn't expected any time soon after the Parti Quebecois failed to win a majority of legislative seats.

Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois, who becomes Quebec's first female premier, replaces Liberal Jean Charest, Quebec's leader for nearly a decade.

With opinion polls showing little popular appetite for a new separatist referendum, Marois herself has left much uncertainty about if and when one would be held under a PQ government.

But more autonomy for Quebec is high on the agenda for the PQ, which has said it would seek a transfer of powers from the federal government in areas like employment insurance and immigration policy. If those measures are rejected, the party believes it would have a stronger case for independence.

Without a majority in the Quebec Assembly, however, the PQ will need to work with other parties to pass legislation, and the results will undermine efforts to quickly hold a referendum on separation.

Quebec's official election website showed preliminary results giving the PQ just over 32 percent of the vote and 57 seats, while the Liberals had about 30 percent of the vote and 46 seats. A new party, Coalition Avenir Quebec, followed with 27 percent and 20 seats. The separatist Quebec Solidaire party won 2 seats.

A party needs to obtain 63 of the 125 seats to form a majority.

Charest, who lost his own seat, congratulated Marois for becoming Quebec's first woman premier, but noted it is a minority government.

"The result of this election campaign tonight speaks to the fact that the future of Quebec lies within Canada," Charest said. He did not indicate whether he intended to step down as Liberal leader after the defeat.

Quebec has held two referendums to split from Canada, in 1980 and 1995, the last narrowly rejecting independence. A recent poll showed support for independence under 30 percent, but analysts said voters were weary of the Liberals after three terms in office.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper congratulated Marois on her victory but said he did not believe the results meant most Quebecers favor separation.

"We do not believe that Quebecers wish to revisit the old constitutional battles of the past," Harper said in a statement.

"Our government will remain focused on jobs, economic growth and good economic management," Harper said. "We believe economic issues and jobs are also the priority of Quebecers. In that sense, we will continue working with the Government of Quebec on those common objectives."

Although a number of candidates from the smaller parties are separatists, a minority government means "the more radical things in the party platform are going to be dead on arrival," said Bruce Hicks, a political science professor at Concordia University in Montreal.

Francois Legault, a former PQ minister who now leads the Coalition Avenir Quebec, has showed little support for quickly holding a referendum, saying the separation issue has paralyzed the province for too long. He has said a referendum should be put off for at least a decade.

With the PQ just short of a majority, however, the party should be able to win support from other parties on a number of other issues, for instance by offering them cabinet positions, Hicks said.

Charest called the election more than a year before he had to, citing unrest in the streets due to this spring's student protests over tuition hikes. The most sustained student protests ever to take place in Canada began in February, resulting in about 2,500 arrests.

Education was hardly a major topic during the campaign. Charest sought to focus voters on the need to maintain a stable government promoting job creation during troubled global economic times, instead of electing separatists who would create uncertainty. He stressed his province has largely been spared the economic hardships seen elsewhere in the West.

Marois, 63, was first elected to Quebec's National Assembly in 1981. She retired in 2006 but returned to become PQ leader a year later after her predecessor lost to Charest in an election that landed the PQ in third place. She in turn lost to Charest in 2008 but the 54-year-old Liberal leader seems to have lost his bet when he called early elections in August seeking a fourth mandate.

Police officers were visible in the streets of Montreal one day after hundreds of protesters banged pots in a show of disapproval of the Liberals.

Earlier in the day, Charest was jeered loudly during a campaign stop.