Future of Quebec’s separatist party in doubt

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Parti Quebecois supporters react as they watch early election results at the party’s reception, Monday, April 7, 2014, in Montreal. The Liberal Party won Quebec’s legislative elections Monday, in a crushing defeat for the main separatist party and major setback for the cause of independence in the French-speaking province. Official results showed the Liberals, staunch supporters of Canadian unity, won or were leading the race in about 75 of the of National Assembly’s 125 seats, outstripping the separatist Parti Quebecois. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz)

Parti Quebecois supporters react as they watch early election results at the party’s reception, Monday, April 7, 2014, in Montreal. The Liberal Party won Quebec’s legislative elections Monday, in a crushing defeat for the main separatist party and major setback for the cause of independence in the French-speaking province. Official results showed the Liberals, staunch supporters of Canadian unity, won or were leading the race in about 75 of the of National Assembly’s 125 seats, outstripping the separatist Parti Quebecois. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz)

Quebec Liberal party supporters react as they watch the results on election night, Monday, April 7, 2014, in Saint-Felicien, Quebec. The Liberal Party won Quebec’s legislative elections Monday, in a crushing defeat for the main separatist party and major setback for the cause of independence in the French-speaking province. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Clement Allard)

A Parti Quebecois supporter reacts as he watches early election results at the party’s reception Monday, April 7, 2014, in Montreal. The Liberal Party won Quebec’s legislative elections Monday, in a crushing defeat for the main separatist party and major setback for the cause of independence in the French-speaking province. Official results showed the Liberals, staunch supporters of Canadian unity, won or were leading the race in about 75 of the of National Assembly’s 125 seats, outstripping the separatist Parti Quebecois. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz)

Parti Quebecois supporters listen to election results at the party’s election headquarters Monday, April 7, 2014 in Montreal. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)

Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois blows kisses to supporters following her speech at the party election headquarters Monday, April 7, 2014 in Montreal. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)

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QUEBEC CITY (AP) — Quebec’s separatist party faces doubts about its very survival after voters solidly rejected the main purpose of its existence — making the French-speaking province an independent country.

Voters ousted the Party Quebecois from power in provincial legislative elections largely centered on the independence debate. The PQ got just 25 percent of the popular vote in Monday’s election, its worst showing since it first participated in elections in 1970, shortly after its founding with the explicit goal of breaking away from Canada.

It was a shocking blow for a party that took power in a minority government just 18 months ago. The Liberals had led the province for nine years, but suffered from corruption allegations.

Premier Pauline Marois had called the snap elections in the belief that her pro-independence Parti Quebecois could win a parliamentary majority, buoyed by the popularity of its proposed “charter of values” that would ban public employees from wearing Muslim headscarves and other overt religious symbols.

Instead, the Quebec Liberals, staunch supporters of Canadian unity, came away with the majority in Monday’s vote, winning 70 seats in the 125-member National Assembly.

Chantal Herbert, a columnist for the Toronto Star, called it a “life-threatening defeat” for the Parti Quebecois.

With only 30 seats in the legislature, the PQ now faces four years in opposition to ponder its future. Everything from its leftist ideology to its proposed secular charter is up in the air.

Francois Legault, a former PQ member who now leads the smaller Coalition for Quebec’s Future said the results will force his old party to do what he did five years ago — ponder its fundamental belief in an independent Quebec.

“I think these people will have to go through the same reflection I did in 2009,” said Legault, whose party won 22 seats after pledging to set aside the referendum question to focus on more pressing issues, such as the economy.

Quebec’s identity has been contentious since the 1760s when the British completed their takeover of what was then called New France. In the 1960s, the Parti Quebecois was formed under the leadership of a TV commentator-turned-politician named Rene Levesque, who would go on to rule the province for nine years.

Quebec, which is 80 percent French-speaking, has plenty of autonomy already. The province of 8.1 million sets its own income tax, has its own immigration policy favoring French speakers, and has legislation prioritizing French over English. Twice, voters have rejected sovereignty, though only by a razor-thin margin in a 1995 referendum.

In recent years support for independence has fallen, and the PQ has headed a Quebec government for just 18 months out of the past decade.

Marois herself tried to downplay the sovereignty issue during the campaign, insisting that her government would only push for a referendum when Quebecers were ready and trying to keep the focus on the charter of values. The strategy floundered after one prominent PQ candidate, media mogul Pierre Karl Peladeau, passionately declared his dream of making Quebec an independent country.

At a rally Monday night, Peladeau and other PQ leaders insisted they would not give up that quest.

“We will never abandon it — never!” Bernard Drainville, a cabinet member in the Marois government, shouted before leading the party faithful in a chant of “We want a country, we want a country!”

The PQ’s first order of business will be to elect a new leader. Drainville and Peladeau, who won his seat, are among the potential candidates. Marois, who lost her own seat, stepped down as party leader immediately on Monday night.

Critics of the sovereignty movement were swift to cast Tuesday’s election outcome as essentially another failed referendum on independence.

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