OTTAWA (Reuters) - The anti-separatist Quebec Liberal Party won a majority government in provincial elections on Monday, eliminating the possibility of a new referendum on independence from Canada for several years and crushing the separatist Parti Quebecois.
The election in the mainly French-speaking province had turned into a referendum on whether to hold another vote on separating from Canada, and the answer appeared to be a resounding "Non."
Monday's election also means the end of the Parti Quebecois' proposed secularism charter, which would have prevented public sector employees from wearing conspicuous religious symbols, from the Muslim hijab to the Jewish yarmulke on the head to large Christian crosses.
The Quebec Liberals had strenuously opposed the charter, which had proved most popular in francophone areas outside the main cities.
The Quebec Liberals had warned incessantly that the Parti Quebecois, which had called the election in a bid to turn their minority government into a majority, would launch a referendum if it succeeded.
Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois, who is expected to lose her seat, announced she would resign as party head in view of the electoral defeat. Quebec Liberal leader Philippe Couillard will now replace her as premier of the province.
The Liberals led in 70 of the 125 races, and the Parti Quebecois led in just 30, its lowest since 1989.
The Parti Quebecois took the lowest share of the vote since it won 23.1 percent in its first election in 1970. With 98.8 percent of voting stations reporting on Monday, it had 25.4 percent of the votes, against 41.5 percent for the Liberals.
It was nearly eclipsed by the upstart Coalition Avenir Quebec, a conservative party which also opposes a referendum. It won or led in 22 seats and took 23.3 percent of the votes.
"The results clearly demonstrate that Quebecers have rejected the idea of a referendum and want a government that will be focused on the economy and job creation," Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement. "We look forward to working with the new government of Quebec on those priorities."
The Parti Quebecois went into the campaign with a polling lead but this turned to dust after star candidate Pierre Karl Peladeau, a media magnate, pumped his fist in the air in saying how he wanted "to make Quebec a country."
Though sovereignty is the raison d'etre of the Parti Quebecois, party leader Marois had focused on other issues and played down the likelihood of a referendum, but Peladeau's declaration returned it front and center.
A first referendum in 1980 lost by almost 20 points but a second one in 1995 turned into a nail-biter for Canada, as the sovereignty option lost by just over one percentage point.
THIRD REFERENDUM AVOIDED
Polls show that two-thirds of Quebec citizens do not want to go through that exercise a third time, and this election showed the dangers for the separatists of musing about leaving Canada.
"Pierre Karl Peladeau was the worst nightmare for the Parti Quebecois in this election," former federal Member of Parliament Andre Bachand, who served as senior Quebec advisor to Prime Minister Harper, said on CBC television.
Peladeau is the controlling shareholder of media empire Quebecor Inc but had stepped down from management decisions as he entered the election.
Peladeau won his seat, and while he said in his victory speech that his party must accept the result with humility, he returned to the theme of Quebec independence as he said he would work to strengthen Quebec business and productivity.
"To work to strengthen Quebec's economy is also to work to make sovereignty more feasible," he said.
Bernard Drainville, a former CBC journalist who served as a Parti Quebecois cabinet minister, insisted the separatists would "never give up, never, never. We will rise again from this defeat this defeat." He then told Parti Quebecois supporters in a chant: "We want a country."
French is the mother tongue for four out of five Quebec residents, and the separatists say they need their own country to be master of their own house.
Quebec political lore has the phrase "neverendum referendum," suggesting it will always be a possibility at some point, but this election takes it off the table for now.
The province's law on fixed election dates provides for the next election to be in October 2018.
On the federal level, the separatists have also not fared well, being reduced to just four of 75 Quebec seats in the House of Commons in the last federal election in 2011.
Their seats were mainly captured by the opposition New Democratic Party, which is against Quebec independence. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair said in a statement: "The NDP has taken note of the people's desire to end the old quarrels."
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Michael Perry)