With most of the votes counted early on Tuesday the Liberals had candidates elected or leading in 48 of the 125 parliamentary seats up for grabs, followed by 41 for the ADQ and 36 for the PQ.

No separation soon

In terms of popular support, the Liberals were at 33 per cent, followed by the ADQ at 31 per cent and the PQ at 28 per cent, the separatist party's worst showing since 1973.

Quebec facts and figures

- Quebec is the only province in Canada where French is the sole official language and covering over 1,500,000 square km it is more than three times the size of France.

- It has twice voted against separating from Canada, by 20 percentage points in 1980 and by just 1 in 1995.

- Around a quarter of the province's 7.5 million people live in the largest city, Montreal.

- 7 of Canada's 22 prime ministers have hailed from Q
uebec, including Pierre Trudeau.

- Other famous Quebecois include racing driver Jacques Villeneueve and singer Celine Dion.

Nearly six million of the French-speaking province's 7.5 million people were eligible to vote.

The poor results are a severe blow for the PQ's 40-year-old leader, Andre Boisclair who had campaigned for a referendum on separation.

The strong performance of the ADQ, led by the 36-year-old Marie Dumont, came as a surprise to his supporters as well as many political pundits who had previously written his party off as a one-man show.

Prior to the election, the Liberals held 72 seats, the Parti Quebecois 45 seats and the ADQ five seats. One member was independent and two seats were vacant.

The ADQ's surge in the final days of the month-long election campaign saw it rise from just five seats in the parliament dissolved last month and take down several Liberal cabinet ministers.

Tax cuts

Dumont will now enter the legislature as the official head of the opposition and his movement's conservative economic and social platform is expected to have a major impact on the new minority Liberal government's policies, especially on reining in Quebec's generous social programmes.

"The results of today's election mark the beginning of a new era for Quebec. It means there is a will to modernise the Quebec model," Dumont told his supporters on Monday night in his home constituency of Riviere-du-loup around 440 km northeast of Montreal.

Dumont's election campaign focused on appealing to Quebec's highly-taxed middle-class with promises of cutting the tax burden and reducing the government's role in society.

He also sought to utilise voters' apathy with the 40-year political struggle between the separatist Parti Quebecois and the Liberals, who staunchly support Canadian unity.

Federal boost

"We are all surprised. There really is an ADQ wave," Josee Legault, a political columnist, told the CBC French network.
 

Parti Quebecois' supporters lament the
worst showing in over 30 years [AFP]

Speaking to supporters in Sherbrooke, east of Montreal, Charest said the election result was historic and a "severe judgment" for both the Liberals and the PQ.

"Quebecers want us to continue to manage Quebec, but with a strong opposition," he said.

Boisclair said it was clear that Quebec voters wanted change, but the PQ would keep the minority Liberal government and ADQ under "high surveillance".

"The flame is not as strong as we had hoped for... but we are still millions of Quebecers who want to make Quebec a country," Boisclair said.

Dumont's success could augur well for Stephen Harper, Canada's conservative prime minister, who is looking to gather more support in Quebec with the aim of turning his own minority government into a majority.

On the other hand his earlier decision recognising Quebec as a "nation" within Canada could reinforce the ADQ's call for greater autonomy.