Quebec separatists trail in election that focused on referendum

OTTAWA, April 7 Mon Apr 7, 2014 8:22pm EDT

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OTTAWA, April 7 (Reuters) - The separatist Parti Quebecois trailed in early results in Quebec elections on Monday, after a bitterly fought campaign that turned largely on whether the French-speaking province should hold another referendum on independence from Canada.

The Quebec Liberal Party, which wants to keep Quebec in Canada and warned incessantly of the dangers of a new referendum, took an early lead in the electoral returns in an apparent rebuke to the governing Parti Quebecois.

The Parti Quebecois had called the election on March 5 in a bid to transform their minority government into a majority, which would enable them to carry out their programs and would give them the power to launch a plebiscite on independence.

This appeared to have backfired as the Parti Quebecois risked being thrown out of government altogether.

The Liberals led in 52 of the 125 races, and the Parti Quebecois led in just 20.

The party went into the campaign with a polling lead but this turned to dust after star candidate Pierre Karl Peladeau, a media magnate, pumped his fist in the air in saying how he wanted "to make Quebec a country."

Though sovereignty is the raison d'etre of the Parti Quebecois, party leader Pauline Marois had focused on other issues and played down the likelihood of a referendum, but Peladeau's declaration returned it front and center.

A first referendum in 1980 lost by almost 20 points but a second one in 1995 turned into a nail-biter for Canada, as the sovereignty option lost by just over one percentage point.

Polls show that two-thirds of Quebec citizens do not want to go throught that exercise a third time, and this election showed the dangers for the separatists of musing about separation.

"Pierre Karl Peladeau was the worst nightmare for the Parti Quebecois in this election," former federal Member of Parliament Andre Bachand, who served as senior Quebec advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said on CBC television.

(Reporting by Randall Palmer; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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