The anti-separatist Liberal Party has won Quebec's legislative elections, in a crushing defeat for the separatist Parti Quebecois and major setback for the cause of independence in the French-speaking Canadian province.
The results will allow the Liberals, staunch supporters of Canadian unity, to form a majority government, less than 18 months after voters booted the party from power for the first time in nine years amid allegations of corruption.
With 99 per cent of the polling stations reporting, the Liberals had 41.4 per cent of the vote and took 70 of the National Assembly's 125 seats.
The Parti Quebecois had 25.4 per cent, and was on track to win 30 seats. The Coalition for Quebec's Future, which played down the sovereignty issue to focus on the economy, was close behind with 23.3 per cent and 22 seats.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who led a minority government, called the snap elections last month in hopes of securing a majority for her PQ party. But the campaign stirred up speculation that a PQ majority would ultimately lead to another referendum on independence from Canada, galvanising supporters of the Liberals. Marois suffered a humiliating defeat, even losing her own district seat, and announced that she would step down as party leader.
"The defeat of our party tonight makes me sad," Marois said. "I am leaving my post."
Marois had tried to make the election about the PQ's proposed "charter of values", a controversial but popular law that would ban public employees from wearing Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols.
But the strategy backfired when one PQ candidate, multi-millionaire media baron Pierre Karl Peladeau, burst onto the scene with a fist-pumping declaration of his commitment to "make Quebec a country".
Peladeau, who won his district, congratulated Liberal leader and new premier Philippe Couillard.
Couillard, a former brain surgeon and former Liberal health minister, has vowed to return the Canadian flag to the legislature. The PQ has always removed the flag when elected.
"My dear friends the division is over. Reconciliation has arrived," Couillard told supporters at his victory rally.
Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper - who won't have to worry about a national unity crisis before the 2015 federal election - said the results "clearly demonstrate that Quebeckers have rejected the idea of a referendum and want a government that will be focused on the economy and job creation".
Quebec has had two referendums on sovereignty. The last such vote, in 1995, narrowly rejected independence.
The province is 80 per cent French-speaking, sets its own income tax, has its own immigration policy favouring French speakers, and has legislation prioritising French over English.
John Zucchi, a professor of history at Montreal's McGill University, said: "Separatism is going to go on the back burner for quite a while, perhaps a generation."