Quebec voters made history on Monday evening, electing the right-leaning Coalition Avenir Québec to form its first ever majority government, as it defeated the ruling Liberals in the province's Oct. 1 general election.
Former Parti Québécois cabinet minister and businessman François Legault, 61, will lead the new government as premier-designate, ending nearly five decades of two-party rule in the French-speaking Canadian province between the federalist Liberals and the sovereignist PQ.
"Today we have marked history," Legault told supporters gathered at his party's election campaign headquarters on Monday evening. "Today many Quebecers have set aside a debate that has divided us for 50 years."
"Let’s push together to make Quebec stronger within Canada," Quebec Premier-designate François Legault said in English. "And I want to assure you that my government will be your government."
The results became clear within 30 minutes after the polls closed, with the CAQ romping towards a resounding victory, capturing 74 of Quebec's 125 seats. The governing Quebec Liberals were slated to form the Opposition with just over 32 seats, while the once mighty Parti Québécois, which entered the campaign as official Opposition, was reduced to becoming the fourth party in the National Assembly with only nine seats, finishing behind the other sovereignist party, the left-leaning Québec solidaire, which finished the evening wih 10 seats.
"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" Legault said in a tweet sent on Monday evening. "I'm very touched by your support. My team and I are very eager to get to work for you."
Merci! Merci! Merci!— François Legault (@francoislegault) October 2, 2018
Je suis très touché de votre confiance.
Mon équipe et moi avons très hâte de nous mettre au travail pour vous.
'Let's push to make Quebec stronger within Canada'
While some public opinion polls showed that there was a tight race between Caquistes and Liberals, heading into the final weekend of the campaign, the CAQ wound up capturing about 38 per cent of the vote, well ahead of the Liberals, who suffered one of their worst defeats in recent history, with only about 25 per cent of the popular vote. The PQ and QS were well behind with about 17 and 16 per cent of the overall vote.
Greeted by a jubilant crowd that chanted his name, Legault said that his party's elected members were ready to roll up their sleeves and implement their campaign promises.
"Let’s push together to make Quebec stronger within Canada," he said in English. "And I want to assure you that my government will be your government."
The PQ also suffered one of their worst electoral defeats in nearly 50 years, while QS made significant gains after entering the campaign with only three seats and running a campaign that was largely ignored by most major Quebec media outlets.
Television images showed Legault, the former airline executive, smiling and celebrating with supporters, soon after the results came in.
Legault has drawn some comparisons to other right-leaning politicians such as Donald Trump and Doug Ford who have recently been elected in the United States and Ontario, by running a campaign based on populist ideas such as lower taxes, less environmental oversight and smaller government.
He has also promised to reduce the number of immigrants to Quebec, Canada's second most populist province, and to expel new Quebecers within three years if they fail a French language test. But Legault has noted that he isn't a social conservative.
Quebec sovereignty not an issue in campaign
Legault, who promoted sovereignty as a PQ cabinet minister in the 1990s and early 2000s, made millions of dollars as one of the founding members of Air Transat. In 2011, he announced he was forming the new Coalition party, merging with the right-leaning Action démocratique du Québec. At that time, Legault had promised not to talk about holding a referendum for a decade.
More recently, he has said that a Coalition government will "never" hold a referendum on Quebec independence, pledging to stay in Canada, with a "Quebec first" approach.
The election marked the first time since the 1970s that the debate about Quebec independence wasn't a central issue in the campaign. Premier Philippe Couillard's Liberals were slated to become the official Opposition, after ruling Quebec for most of the past 15 years. Former Parti Québécois premier Pauline Marois was briefly in power, leading a minority government from 2012 to 2014, when Couillard was first elected.
Former Quebec Liberal premier Jean Charest led the province's government from 2003 to 2012.
Liberals and Péquistes suffer historic losses
In his concession speech, Couillard noted that Quebecers had clearly indicated in the vote that they wanted change.
"We promise to facilitate that change," he told supporters in his Roberval riding in the Lac-Saint-Jean region, north of Quebec City. "We have to stay united. In politics, we must accept our losses. I’m proud. It was my pleasure to serve Quebecers with all my heart."
He also offered a few words of thanks to the province's anglophones, who make up less than 10 per cent of the Quebec population.
"To my fellow English-speaking Quebecers I want to say, rest assured... you have always been part of us, our history. We accept the results of tonight," he said. "I have confidence in Quebec, we are beautiful and strong."
Earlier, Couillard said in a tweet that he had called Legault to congratulate him.
"I leave him with a Quebec that it's in good financial shape and ready to tackle all challenges," Couillard said in the tweet. "I will work towards an harmonious transition for the good of the Quebec population."
Although he was re-elected in his riding, Couillard told a subdued crowd that he would be spending a few days to reflect on his political future.
"I'm not bitter," he said, urging the party faithful to stay positive. "I'm proud."
J’ai eu l’occasion de m’entretenir avec François Legault pour le féliciter. Je lui lègue un Québec en santé financière et prêt à faire face à tous les défis. Je contribuerai à une transition harmonieuse pour le bien de la population québécoise.— Philippe Couillard (@phcouillard) October 2, 2018
The mood was sombre at the Montreal headquarters of the PQ, with Leader Jean-François Lisée heading towards defeat in his own riding, bested by former journalist and QS candidate Vincent Marissal. Lisée told supporters that he would be resigning as leader, but urged them not to give up hope.
“We are in shock tonight, but we will stand tall and strong because Quebec still needs the Parti Québécois," Lisée said.
He also reminded supporters that he had urged QS to merge with his party, noting that the evening's results might have turned up differently if they had agreed.
Gabrielle Lemieux, PQ party president, told reporters earlier that this campaign has been an opportunity for the PQ to represent the change that Quebecers wanted.
When asked if the PQ would have done anything differently looking at the recent numbers, she said, “It’s certain that we’re not perfect. No one in the party would say we’re perfect."
Québec solidaire expands outside of Montreal
Nearby at Québec solidaire headquarters, the crowd was elated as the party more than tripled its numbers of seats in the National Assembly, breaking out of the Montreal inner-city, into other regions of the province.
"We are no longer the party of the Plateau-Mont Royal," Manon Massé, the other party spokesperson who had participated in the leadership debates during the campaign, told a rapturous crowd in her speech at the close of the evening. She spoke about how QS had won the first battle — “the battle for hope.” She said the premier-designate had a “heavy responsibility” to lead Quebec into an energy transition, “because it's too late to wait for another election.”
Orange light — in line with QS’ branding — streamed from the ceiling and the stage throughout the evening under the rich red roof of Montreal's grand 1920s movie theatre, l'Olympia.
Amir Khadir, the first Québec solidaire member to be elected to the National Assembly, said he was pleased by his party's momentum after going into the campaign with only three seats, but disappointed by the strength of Legault's victory.
"I would have liked to see a minority government," said Khadir, who wasn't seeking re-election, in an interview.
Khadir added that his party would work to ensure that climate change is on the political agenda.
Trudeau and Plante congratulate Legault as Canadian Tories celebrate
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who represents a Montreal riding in Parliament, issued a statement late on Monday night, congratulating Legault for his victory.
“I look forward to working with Premier Legault to make Quebec, a province we are all proud of, an even better place to live," Trudeau said in the statement. "We will continue to stand up for Quebec’s workers and industries, create good, middle class jobs, build a strong economy based on innovation, protect the environment, and combat climate change. Together, we will work to make the province even more dynamic and prosperous, to the benefit of all Quebecers.
“I also thank Philippe Couillard for his years of service as premier, as well as (former PQ MNA) François Gendron, who is retiring after serving a record number of years in the National Assembly.”
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante also tweeted a note of congratulations to Legault, saying she was looking forward to working with Legault to advance the interests of Montrealers and of Quebec's economic engine.
Je viens de m'entretenir avec le Premier ministre élu @francoislegault pour le féliciter pour sa victoire. J'ai hâte de travailler avec le nouveau gouv. pour faire avancer les priorités des https://t.co/YJZ9mehSq2 et les intérêts du moteur économique du Québec. #polmtl #polqc— Valérie Plante (@Val_Plante) October 2, 2018
In the rest of Canada, conservative-leaning politicians were celebrating.
In Ottawa, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was among the first to congratulate the premier-designate for his "imporessive majority government victory," adding that he was looking forward to working with Legault and his government in the future.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he had already spoken to Legault to congratulate him.
"I look forward to working with Quebec to improve the lives of all Canadians, and to continue strengthening the historic relationship between our provinces," Ford said in a tweet. "Félicitations."
In Alberta, Opposition United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney was also pleased with the results, saying that it was "encouraging to see another free enterprise provincial government elected!"
Former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall also chimed in, congratulating Legault and thanking outgoing Premier Couillard for his "willingness to serve" and his "constructive perspective at premiers' meetings.
Congratulations to Quebec Premier-designate @francoislegault and the @coalitionavenir on their impressive majority government victory tonight. I look forward to working with Mr. Legault and his new government in the future. #electionqc— Andrew Scheer (@AndrewScheer) October 2, 2018
Félicitations à @francoislegault et la @coalitionavenir pour leur victoire historique ce soir.— Jason Kenney (@jkenney) October 2, 2018
Congratulations to @francoislegault and the @coalitionavenir on their historic victory tonight. Encouraging to see another free enterprise provincial government elected!
Couillard's defeat is part of a trend of losses for provincial Liberal governments since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals were elected to form a national government in 2015. Earlier this year, Premier Ford's Progressive Conservatives defeated former premier Kathleen Wynne's Liberals in Ontario, while New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant's Liberals are clinging to power after winning fewer seats than the Tories in the Atlantic province's September election.
In 2017, former B.C. premier Christy Clark's Liberals were replaced by Premier John Horgan's New Democrats in a general election, while Premier Wade MacLauchlan's Liberals are in a tight race with Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker's party a few days ahead of an October election in Prince Edward Island.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 12:54 a.m. ET on Oct. 2, 2018, with additional quotes, background and reaction. It was updated again at 3:10 p.m. on Oct. 2 with seat counts and voting percentages compiled after the ballots were counted.