Couillard to 'take a few days' to reflect on future following resounding defeat

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said Monday he will take a few days to reflect on his future after his Liberals went down to defeat Monday.

Couillard, who was re-elected in his riding, told supporters that he will leave the Premier's office with his head high.

"I leave Quebec, believe me, in better shape than I found it in 2014,'' he said. He said the Coalition Avenir Quebec majority victory indicates a clear desire for change in the province.

Four years after the Liberals roared to a convincing majority, a quiet crowd at a hotel in Couillard's riding Monday night watched as hope of a second mandate quickly faded away.

Couillard became the third incumbent premier in a row to be defeated as Quebec voters delivered a majority victory to Francois Legault's Coalition Avenir Quebec.

As the voting closed at 8 p.m., a few dozen people watched at the Liberal rally to see if the party would defy the polls that showed it trailing the Coalition Avenir Quebec.

The crowd in the half-filled room shifted nervously as the results began to roll in, showing the Coalition jumping to an early lead.

By 9 p.m., a few were putting on coats and leaving, as others continued to arrive straight from volunteer shifts where they'd campaigned until the last minute.

While the other leaders gathered in Quebec City and Montreal, the incumbent premier chose to spend election night some 250 kilometres north of the capital on the shores of Lac-Saint-Jean, in the Roberval riding he's represented since 2014.

Election results for Montreal and Laval — the Liberals in red, QS in orange, and the CAQ in light blue. (Bell Media graphic)

Montreal area held firm for Liberals

The Liberals, who won just 24.8 per cent of the popular vote — the lowest score in the party's 151-year history — won most of their seats in the Montreal area, particularly on the island of Montreal, where most of those who won took their ridings by huge majorities.

The party took 19 of the 27 ridings on the island — the Liberals were re-elected in Acadie (Christine St-Pierre), Anjou (Lise Theriault), D'Arcy McGee (David Birnbaum), Jeanne-Mance-Viger (Filomena Rotiroti), Marguerite-Bourgeoys (Helene David), Maurice-Richard (Marie Montpetit), Mont-Royal-Outremont (Pierre Arcand), NDG (Kathleen Weil), Robert-Baldwin (Carlos Leitao), St. Henri-Ste.Anne (Dominique Anglade) and Verdun (Isabelle Melançon).

Among the newcomers winning seats for the Liberals: Paule Robitaille (Bourassa-Sauvé), Gregory Kelley (Jacques-Cartier), Enrico Ciccone (Marquette), Monsef Derraji (Nelligan), Marwah Rizqy (St. Laurent), Frantz Benjamin (Viau), and Jennifer Maccarone (Westmount-St. Louis)

Off the island, health minister Gaetan Barrette managed to hold on to his seat in La Pinière on the south shore.

Couillard wins own riding

Until Couillard arrived on stage, the only cheers and applause of the night came when their leader's face flashed on the screen, showing Couillard leading in his own riding.

Many in the crowd said they were disappointed but not surprised, given the strong hunger for change expressed in the polls.

"There's a wind of change, unfortunately,'' said Rodrigue Lavoie, expressing a familiar sentiment among Liberal supporters.

"Mr. Couillard had a good record, with the economy, with unemployment, everything. It's a wind of change, no other way to explain it.''

Earlier Monday, Couillard appeared serene as he cast his ballot Monday morning in St-Felicien, saying he'd run the campaign he'd wanted to.

"I think we ran a campaign of concrete proposals for Quebecers, supported by a record that, frankly, we've rarely seen in terms of stimulus. It bodes well for the future,'' he said after voting alongside his wife, Suzanne Pilote.

But despite record-low unemployment, strong economic growth and billion-dollar budget surpluses, Couillard's quest for a second mandate was never assured.

Francophone vote key

While the last polls showed Couillard's Liberals almost neck and neck with Francois Legault's Coalition Avenir Quebec, the incumbent premier trailed significantly when it came to the all-important voter intentions among French-speakers.

Throughout the campaign, Couillard pointed to his party's four consececutive balanced budgets and warned Quebecers that choosing another party risked disrupting the province's economic momentum.

He sought to present his as the "party of the economy'' while also make big spending promises, including free public transit for seniors and students, more super-clinics and free daycare for four-year-olds.

But he paid a high price for those balanced budgets, as he was consistenly hammered by his rivals for lowering the province's health and education budgets in the first half of his mandate.

Faced with poll numbers that showed the Coalition far in the lead, Couillard decided to launch the election several days early, hoping the long campaign would give him time to narrow the gap.

He consistently attacked the front-running Legault for a controversial plan to "expel'' immigrants who fail to pass a language and values test within three years of arrival.

He also accused his main rival of wanting to reduce immigration as the province faces a labour shortage.