GATINEAU, Quebec (AP) — Voters in Quebec weighed returning a separatist party to power as polls opened Tuesday in the French-speaking province, which could edge toward another referendum to break away from Canada if the Parti Quebecois ends nearly a decade of Liberal rule as expected.
Liberal leader Jean Charest, who has headed Quebec for nearly a decade, consistently has trailed in the polls to Pauline Marois' Parti Quebecois since he called an early election on Aug. 1. But most polls indicate Mrs. Marois — who could become the province's first female premier — will not have enough votes to obtain a majority of the seats in Quebec's legislature, the National Assembly, undermining efforts to quickly hold a referendum on separation.
Quebec has held two referendums to split from Canada, in 1980 and 1995, the last narrowly rejecting independence.
Polls show there's little appetite for a new referendum, and Mrs. Marois herself has left much uncertainty about if and when one would be held under a PQ government. A recent poll showed support for independence under 30 percent, but analysts say voters are weary of the Liberals after three terms in office.
Voters became tired of the Quebec Liberal Party after corruption allegations surfaced against the party and student protests erupted this spring, said Bruce Hicks, a political science professor at Concordia University in Montreal.
"Quebecers tend to tire of the government and throw them out," he said. "It's sort of been the tradition in Quebec politics."
Some 5.9 million people are registered to vote in the province's 20,000 polling stations, but nearly a million of them already have done so in advance voting.
More autonomy for Quebec is high on the agenda for the PQ, which has said it would seek a transfer of powers from the federal government in areas such as employment insurance and immigration policy. If those measures are rejected, the party believes it would have a stronger case for independence.
The campaign has been a three-way race involving a new party, Coalition Avenir Quebec, headed by former PQ minister Francois Legault, who says the separation issue has paralyzed the province for far too long.
Entering his polling station to vote, Mr. Legault said he was confident of the day's results.
"This is a historic day, a new era is beginning," Mr. Legault said, adding that it was time to "put aside disagreements on referendums and begin a new change, a cleanup and relaunch of Quebec."
Mr. Charest called the election more than a year before he had to, citing unrest in the streets because of this spring's student protests over tuition increases. The most sustained student protests ever to take place in Canada began in February, resulting in about 2,500 arrests.
Polls showed that the Quebecois were more likely to side with the government on the need for a tuition increase, but they were divided on an emergency law brought into place to limit demonstrations. Politicians and rights groups have said the legislation restricts the right to demonstrate.
Education was hardly a major topic during the campaign. Mr. Charest sought to focus voters on the need to maintain a stable government promoting job creation during troubled global economic times, instead of electing separatists who would create uncertainty. He stressed that his province largely has been spared the economic hardships seen elsewhere in the West.
Mr. Charest notably has touted a northern development plan, the Plan Nord, which his party says would see $80 billion in public and private investment over the next 25 years in areas such as mining and energy, creating thousands of jobs annually and benefiting the entire province.
But Mrs. Marois says the companies doing business wouldn't pay enough royalties. Mr. Legault said foreign companies mostly stood to benefit from the project.
Both the PQ and the Liberals said they would make it harder for foreign companies to take over Canadian entities, an issue brought to the fore as North Carolina-based Lowe's seeks to take over Quebec-based hardware chain Rona.
Critics say Mr. Charest called the snap vote to avoid any embarrassment from an ongoing corruption inquiry into the province's construction industry, which is expected to resume after a summer break and has been largely overshadowed by the student protests.
But Mr. Hicks, the political scientist, still considers the election "up for grabs," considering the number of people who remained uncertain about how they will vote.
Two-thirds of Quebec voters want nothing to do with sovereignty, Mr. Hicks says. But even if it doesn't come to a new referendum, the election of a PQ government would make for tense relations with the federal government and a conservative prime minister who has difficulty appealing to the Quebecois.
"At the very least the rhetoric is going to increase, but I suspect tensions and conflict will rise as well," he says