MONTREAL — Quebec's main separatist party faces a tough challenge as residents voted Monday in elections that revived the debate on whether the French-speaking province should break away from Canada.
That possibility now seems far off, with the Party Quebecois facing a backlash over the renewed talk of independence, an idea that has enjoyed little support in recent years.
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who has led a minority government since September 2012, said she called the snap National Assembly elections last month in the hopes of securing a majority needed to pass the PQ's controversial charter of values," which would ban public employees from wearing religious headgear, including Muslim headscarves and Jewish skullcaps.
"I want to obtain the confidence of Quebecers," Marois said Sunday during last-minute campaigning. "I am asking for their confidence."
Marois had tried to mute talk of another referendum on independence. But the strategy backfired early in the campaign when one PQ candidate, multi-millionaire media baron Pierre Karl Peladeau, burst onto the scene with a fist-pumping declaration of his commitment to "make Quebec a country."
That turned independence into the defining issue of the campaign, sidelining the "charter of values" that the PQ had hoped would electrify French-speaking voters in crucial swing regions. Supporters say the charter would protect the idea of separation of church and state, while protests against it have brought together thousands of Muslims, Jews and Sikhs.
Political experts see the PQ struggling to take control of the 125-seat legislature. Instead, the election has offered the Quebec Liberals — staunch supporters of Canadian unity — a shot at winning a majority just 18 months after provincial voters booted them from power for the first time in nine years.
"The campaign went off the rails with the Peladeau announcement and then it has just been a matter of desperately throwing anything at the wall to see what sticks, and finding that everything has instead bounced back at them," said Daniel Weinstock, a law professor at Montreal-based McGill University.
One political cartoon summed up the dynamic: On a line graph measuring voter preference, the image of Peladeau's raised right fist directly corresponded with a drop in PQ support.
The Liberals remain haunted by allegations of corruption that tainted their nine years in power. But party leader Philippe Couillard, who opposes the charter of values, hammered away at the referendum issue and framed the election as a choice between uncertainty and stability.
"The choice is clear," Couillard said during one televised debate. "Do you want to elect the Parti Quebecois, which will prepare another referendum, or a Liberal government that will attend to the economy, jobs, education and health?"
Michel Ratté, a retired 56-year-old resident of a Montreal suburb, voted Liberal and believes they will win a majority.
"I'm against separation," he said. "The subject of separation came into play, and that scares people."
Eric Morin, a 49-year-old assistant cameraman in a Montreal suburb, said he reluctantly voted for the PQ because he didn't want to give too much power to the Liberals who he thinks will win a majority government. He said the PQ didn't run a good campaign.
"I have nothing against a referendum, but it probably wasn't the right time. I think they concentrated on a lot of things that weren't constructive, and that disappointed me," Morin said.
Couillard has vowed to return the Canadian flag to the legislature if he takes power. The PQ has always removed flag when elected.
Quebec has had two referendums on sovereignty. The last such vote, in 1995, narrowly rejected independence.
Quebec, which is 80 percent of French-speaking, has plenty of autonomy already. The province of 8.1 million sets its own income tax, has its own immigration policy favoring French speakers, and has legislation prioritizing French over English.
But many Quebecois have long dreamed of an independent Quebec, as they at times haven't felt respected and have worried about the survival of their language in English-speaking North America.
Still, if the PQ gets anything less than a majority on Monday, political analysts expect a shake-up within the party.
In Weinstock's view, Marois will likely be out as leader and the charter of values will recede into the background.
The premier insisted Sunday she was optimistic.
"My instincts tell me that on Monday night, we're going to be very happy," Marois said. "Things are telling me that we're going to elect a Parti Quebecois government."
A deadly shooting marred her victory rally the night of the last election. A man opened fire just outside the Montreal theater and killed a stage hand and wounded another. The masked gunman, wearing a bathrobe, was shown on television ranting and shouting "The English are waking up!" in French as police dragged him away after the shooting. Richard Henry Bain has been charged with first-degree murder. His trial is expected to start early next year.
Associated Press reporter Rob Gillies contributed to this report from Toronto.