Mr. Harper also thanked Mr. Charest for his “leadership and devotion to Quebeckers.”
The Liberals, who were facing the spectre of finishing in third place, still managed to keep 50 seats, despite gaining only 31.7 per cent of the votes, an even lower percentage than their previous major defeat, the 1976 election when Robert Bourassa also lost his seat and was forced into political exile.
The PQ’s victory could usher a new phase of confrontations in the national unity debate, though Ms. Marois lacklustre performance raised questions about her ability to carry its secessionist agenda further.
The PQ was elected in 54 ridings, short of the 63 needed for a majority, while the Liberals clinched 50 seats and the CAQ won in 19 ridings.
Legislature speaker Jacques Chagnon, a Liberal, is expected to seek the job again, consolidating the PQ's margin in the National Assembly.
Throughout the campaign, CAQ Leader François Legault repeatedly rejected any possibility of his party striking an alliance with another party in the event of a minority government.
“Quebeckers have decided to keep the new government on a tight leash. They gave the PQ a minority government. It is our responsibility to keep an eye on that party,” Mr. Legault told supporters.
“A few percentage points would have tipped a lot of ridings our way ... We are now an unavoidable political force,” said Mr. Legault, whose party pledges to promote neither federalism nor sovereignty for the next 10 years
The three parties were closer in the breakdown of the percentage of votes, underlining that support for both Liberals and CAQ was close to the PQ but remained concentrated in a smaller number of ridings.
The tight race also raised questions about the PQs’ ability to stage a series of constitutional and financial battles with Ottawa to help build its case for sovereignty once it returns to power.
The PQ started the campaign with the support of 33-per cent of voters and that’s where it stood on election night. Ms. Marois was never able to break the barrier into majority government territory.
Within the coming weeks, Ms. Marois will form a cabinet, outline her offensive against Ottawa and, behind closed doors, evaluate when, if ever, it will be possible to hold another referendum on sovereignty.
Ms. Marois’ every move will be carefully monitored by those in the party who have become impatient over the issue of sovereignty. But with a minority government the PQ leader’s hand are tied, paralyzing any desire within the sovereignty movement to pressure Ms. Marois into holding another referendum.
Newly elected members such as party advisor Jean-François Lisée, former journalist Pierre Duchesne and former student leader Léo Bureau-Blouin who at 21 makes him the youngest candidate ever elected to the National Assembly, will change the face of a caucus marked in recent years by deep divisions and dissent.
But before Ms. Marois can even consider undertaking the herculean task of reviving nationalist sentiment in the province, she will face more pressing matters. Quebec has the largest public debt of any province – almost $253-billion or 51 per cent of its gross domestic product.
These are issues the two major opposition parties will push hard on the new PQ government. But given the devastating blow handed to the Liberals and their leader, Mr. Charest, the once-ruling party will be too busy regrouping and choosing another leader that with trying to defeat the PQ.
Mr. Charest lost in a tight fight in his Sherbrooke riding against Serge Cardin, the area’s former Bloc Québécois MP until he was bounced by the NDP Orange Wave in last year’s federal election.
Even after the vote, the Liberals’ troubles are likely to continue. The party could face further setbacks later this fall with the resumption of the Charbonneau commission, a public inquiry into corruption and bid-rigging in public works contracts.
The mood was also sombre at CAQ headquarters as star candidates such as doctor Gaétan Barrette were defeated and the party's hoped-for breakthrough in the 450 area code around Montreal did not materialize.
The party placed second in opinion polls at the end of the campaign, but the results did not live up to expectations.