AFP - Liberal Premier Jean Charest won a majority in Quebec elections Monday, spoiling a separatist comeback with a mandate to bolster the Canadian province's slowing economy, said television predictions.
The victory casts Charest, 50 and at the helm of a minority government since 2007, as the first leader of the French-speaking province to win three back-to-back elections in more than half a century.
The separatist Parti Quebecois meanwhile made strides to place second, up from third in the last ballot, and will form the official opposition.
Early results showed the Liberals obtained 43 percent of the popular vote, versus 34 percent for the Parti Quebecois and 16 percent for the Action democratique du Quebec.
Some 5.7 million Quebecers were eligible to vote to select 125 members of Quebec's National Assembly.
Charest had called the elections, saying he needed a firmer mandate to steer Quebec through a period of economic instability set off by the global financial crisis.
He hammered his message right through the campaign's end, calling on all Quebecers, federalists and separatists alike, to unite behind the Liberal banner during these unsettled times.
"The economic stakes transcend everything else," he told reporters on Sunday.
Despite voter hostility to the holding of the province's second snap elections in two years and gripes about political opportunism, the risky strategy seems to have worked.
Quebec independence was also not a factor in this election, for the first time in decades.
Since the 1970s, the survival of a distinct French identity in North America has been a major concern for Quebecers and led to two referendums on Quebec sovereignty, in 1980 and 1995.
But the movement's standard-bearer, the Parti Quebecois, said it would not hold a third referendum if returned to power, at least not until it has rebuilt its base.
In its final days the election was eclipsed by a power struggle in Ottawa between Canada's ruling conservatives and a leftist coalition supported by separatists that forced the governor general to shut down parliament.
In a bid to stem the revolt, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper denounced separatists' support for the coalition, while his backers described the coalition's actions as "tantamount to treason" and an "attack on democracy."
Outside attacks on separatists however are viewed by some in Quebec as Quebec-bashing.
The Ottawa crisis might have helped Charest, who argued it showed Quebecers needed to elect a majority government to avoid partisan feuding over how best to seed an economic recovery.
But, by raising tensions between Quebec and the rest of Canada, some feared it could have also whipped up separatist sentiments in the province.