Coalition party win shakes up Quebec's political landscape

The Coalition Avenir Quebec shattered nearly a half-century of two-party political rule in Quebec on Monday by winning a majority government that will redraw the province's electoral map.

The party was elected or leading in nearly 75 of the province's 125 ridings, compared with about 30 for the incumbent Liberals.

Coalition Leader Francois Legault guided his right-leaning, seven-year-old party to victory following a 39-day campaign, during which he urged Quebecers to support him as the candidate for change.

The win delivered something Quebec hasn't seen in 48 years _ a provincial government headed by a party other than the Liberals or the Parti Quebecois.

Legault's party surged out to a strong start shortly after polls closed, leaving the Liberals in second and the PQ in a distant third, barely ahead of Quebec solidaire.

With support for independence sliding, the PQ is now facing an existential crisis. The party has steadily watched its support slide after spending about 20 of the last 48 years in office.

In fact, the PQ and Quebec solidaire were both leading or were elected in 10 ridings, two short of the number required to be recognized as an official party.

The numbers began flowing in following a tightly fought campaign that many had predicted would shake up the political landscape.

It was more like an earthquake.

Legault won his riding of L'Assomption, while Quebec solidaire co-spokespeople Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and Manon Masse were both elected in their Montreal ridings.

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard salvaged some pride by being elected in Roberval, about 250 kilometres north of Quebec City, while PQ Leader Jean-Francois Lisee suffered a double blow by also losing his Montreal riding.

In his concession speech, Couillard said he would take a few days to ponder his political future.

Legault, a former businessman and co-founder of Air Transat, ended nearly 15 years of continuous Liberal rule with the victory.

The Liberals held power since 2003, with the exception of a 19-month PQ minority government between 2012 and 2014.

The Coalition gathered significant support, even though the Liberals were in power as Quebec's economy surged in recent years.

Opinion polls, however, had suggested for months that voters were looking for a change.

As party history goes in Quebec, Legault's victory represented change.

The Union Nationale won the 1966 election and held power until 1970. Since then, however, it's been a two-party show headlined by the Liberals and the PQ.

The emergence of Legault's party, which won just 22 seats in 2014 to finish third, came in large part at the expense of the PQ.

The PQ's raison d'etre _ Quebec sovereignty _ has lost its lustre with voters.

For the first time in decades, talk of a referendum on independence was not a ballot-box issue.

The federalist Liberals and the Coalition, even though it's led by former PQ cabinet minister Legault, have no interest in holding a referendum.

Faced with the shift in public sentiment, Lisee entered the race with a vow not to hold a referendum on sovereignty in his first mandate as premier.

The Liberals had 68 seats at the legislature's dissolution, while the PQ had 28, the Coalition 21 and Quebec solidaire three. There were five Independents.

At the end of the campaign, two leaders had stayed ahead of the pack: Legault and Couillard.

But even if the final vote count is close, polls had suggested the Coalition could capture many more ridings than the Liberals because of its support among francophone voters.

Couillard had touted his government's balanced budgets as well as the province's falling unemployment rate and strong economic performance.

Both leaders faced criticism at times: Couillard for having reduced health and education budgets early in his mandate, and Legault for a controversial plan to ``expel'' immigrants who fail to pass a language and values test within three years of arrival.

While Legault began the election campaign as the front-runner, the party's lead dwindled as the Liberals gained ground later on.

With the PQ promising to not hold a sovereignty referendum in the next four years, Lisee's campaign focused on immigration, health care and the best way to spend the province's billions in budget surpluses.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement Monday to offer his ``sincere congratulations'' to Legault on the win.

``I look forward to working with Premier Legault to make Quebec, a province we are all proud of, an even better place to live,'' said Trudeau, who represents a Montreal riding.

``Together, we will work to make the province even more dynamic and prosperous, to the benefit of all Quebecers.''

It's unclear what Legault's win will mean for Quebec's relationship with Ottawa.

Couillard, a staunch federalist, had smooth relations with Trudeau's Liberals.

But there have already been signs of friction between Legault, a former sovereigntist and PQ cabinet minister, and the federal government.

Last week, a recording of Legault's wife, Isabelle Brais, captured her criticizing Trudeau.

In the recording, Brais can be heard telling a party meeting last month that while Trudeau's father, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was ``brilliant,'' his son is not.

Brais, a fixture by Legault's side during the campaign, described the younger Trudeau as incompetent and suggested a Coalition government could have strained ties with his federal government.

Brais issued an apology, through the party, and he said she had gone too far after Montreal's La Presse newspaper obtained audio of the August meeting and reported on it.

Legault declined to say whether he endorsed his wife's comments about the prime minister.

``My wife, who I've been with for 28 years, is an independent woman who has her opinions, who is spontaneous, who apologized,'' Legault told reporters. ``I think we should turn the page.''

He sidestepped a question about his own opinion of the Trudeaus. ``I'm not able to judge who of the two is most brilliant,'' Legault said.