QUEBEC CITY, Quebec Quebecers were voting on Tuesday in an election that looked set to hand victory to the separatist Parti Quebecois, which wants the resource-rich French-speaking province to break away from Canada.
Polls show that the left-leaning Parti Quebecois, which has twice held unsuccessful referendums on independence, will end nine years of rule by the federalist Liberals of Premier Jean Charest.
Although PQ leader Pauline Marois is promising another independence referendum when the time is right, that could be years away. A CROP poll last week showed only 28 percent of Quebecers back the idea of breaking away from Canada.
Marois says she would concentrate instead on the economy, in particular tackling the province's large debt, imposing higher tax and royalty rates on mining firms and making foreign takeovers of Quebec companies more difficult.
"Charest was in power for nine years, he had his chance. It's time for a change," said 60-year-old voter Andre Tetreault after casting his ballot for the PQ in Quebec City.
The election pits the PQ against the Liberals and the newly created right-of-center Coalition for the Future of Quebec (CAQ) Two other smaller separatist parties are also on the ballot, and vote splitting means the final result is hard to call.
The PQ could well end up with a minority of seats in the provincial legislature, meaning it would have to rely on other parties to govern.
Polls close at 8 p.m. eastern (0000 GMT Wednesday) and first results could be known within two hours. Quebec has a population of 7.8 million, compared with 34.5 million for all of Canada.
Nomura Global Economics analyst Charles St-Arnaud said that given the current lack of enthusiasm for independence, even a PQ majority victory would not cause much market unrest.
"I think that the election result will be more noise than anything else," he said in an e-mail. "We could see a slight depreciation of the Canadian dollar and a widening of spreads, but nothing meaningful. What will matter more for spreads will be the first budget."
Under the Liberals, who want Quebec to stay part of Canada, relations with the federal government in Ottawa have been relatively stable since 2003.
That would change under a PQ government since Marois has made clear she wants a quick meeting with Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to demand he give Quebec overall control of immigration policy and unemployment insurance.
Harper has often railed against Quebec separatists, and if he refuses to cooperate with Marois, that could boost support for the idea of independence.
The CAQ says it would freeze all talk of a referendum for a decade and focus on the economy. CAQ leader Francois Legault used to be a PQ cabinet minister but says his views have changed and he would vote against independence for Quebec.
"This is an historic day. A new era is starting, one where we can set aside squabbles about referendums," he said.
The CAQ started the election in a distant third place but is now tied with the Liberals.
"Before we didn't have a choice. If you didn't like one (party) you tried the other ... you were trapped like a rat," said Quebec City resident Louise Petit, 56, after voting for the CAQ.
The Liberals won three successive elections from 2003 to 2008 but became increasingly unpopular amid allegations of corruption in the construction industry that might be linked to the financing of political parties.
In May of this year, the Liberals brought in a tough law to combat student protests against planned tuition hikes. Lawyers and trade unions denounced the law as dictatorial and Marois promised to scrap the hikes if she wins.
When the 125-seat provincial assembly was dissolved, the seats were divided as follows:
Liberals -- 64
PQ -- 47
CAQ -- 9
Quebec Solidaire -- 1
Option Nationale -- 1
Independents -- 2
Vacant -- 1
(Writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway)