The electorate proved deeply divided across Canada, but in Quebec there was a remarkable show of unity with more than half of voters choosing the separatist Bloc Québécois.
The Bloc took 50 per cent of the vote, compared to 33 per cent for the Liberals, 9 per cent for the Conservatives and 5 per cent for the New Democrats. Bloc candidates took a record 54 ridings, compared to 19 for the Liberals. Two ridings remained too close to call late in the evening.
Among the victorious sovereigntists going to Ottawa will be the Bloc's first visible-minority MP and the party's first aboriginal MP.
The Liberals hung on only to staunchly federalist ridings, and even many of those were a struggle. The party appeared to win just one riding outside Montreal, the Beauce region.
One of the most striking Liberal losses was in Jean Chrétien's rejigged former riding, where the Bloc won handily. Mr. Chrétien won the riding in 11 straight elections.
That the Bloc added more than 20 seats reflects lingering anger over the sponsorship scandal in a campaign that was otherwise surprisingly issue-free.
Louis Massicotte, a political-science professor at the Université de Montréal, said attempts to buy Quebeckers' loyalty with advertising campaigns hit a raw nerve and "voters were in the mood to lynch a government."
Pablo Rodriguez, the victorious Liberal candidate in Honoré-Mercier and one of the party's few new bright lights in Quebec, said there was no doubt the sponsorship scandal hurt and that the party needed a little more time to turn the tide.
"The anger was palpable at the beginning of the campaign, but it subsided a bit at the end," Mr. Rodriguez said. "I think we had a strong finish."
But not strong enough, as the Liberals sustained heavy losses in Paul Martin's home province.
The only saving grace was that the Conservatives did even worse, failing to make any significant breakthrough in the province that vaulted Conservative Brian Mulroney to power.
Liberal losses were broad and varied:
In one of the most symbolic battles, Heritage Minister Hélène Chalifour Scherrer went down to defeat in Louis-Hébert. Her department was most closely tied to the sponsorship scandal. She was defeated by Roger Clavet, a Radio-Canada employee parachuted in from Winnipeg.
Dennis Dawson, a close adviser to Mr. Martin, was defeated in Beauport by Christian Simard, a social-housing activist who ran for the Bloc.
Bruno-Marie Béchard, rector of the University of Sherbrooke and a star Liberal candidate, was beaten handily by Bloquiste Serge Cardin. André Harvey, who had held the Chicoutimi-Le Fjord riding for most of the past two decades for both the Conservatives and the Liberals, went down to defeat against Bloc candidate Robert Bouchard.
Marie-Ève Bilodeau could not hang on to Mr. Chrétien's riding of Saint-Maurice-Champlain, losing to Bloc MP Marcel Gagnon.
Oddly, the one riding that went against the tide was Saint-Léonard, where Liberal Massimo Pacetti hung on to the seat long held by Alfonso Gagliano, a key sponsorship figure.
The seats the Liberals kept were those of heavyweights: Mr. Martin, Justice Minister Irwin Cottler, former intergovernmental affairs minister Stéphane Dion, Quebec lieutenant Jean Lapierre, Minister for Métis and Indians Denis Coderre.
But some ridings were too close to call, notably the multicultural Ahuntsic riding, where Liberal Eleni Bakopanos and Bloquiste Maria Mourani were locked in a seesaw battle, showing that the Liberals can no longer count on the votes of allophones. The battle between Liberal Pierre Pettigrew and Martine Carrière of the Bloc was also too close to call.
The Bloc not only made an important breakthrough by drawing a significant number of non-francophone voters, but elected virtually all its star candidates:
Leader Gilles Duceppe won his fifth straight election in the Laurier riding.
Maka Kotto will be the Bloc's first visible-minority MP, and Bernard Cleary the party's first aboriginal MP.
At dissolution, there were 37 Liberals, 33 Bloc MPs, four independents and one vacancy. But from the outset, the polls showed the Bloc with 50-per-cent support, and there was little movement in voter allegiances during the 36-day campaign.
In fact, the election results were all but sealed in Quebec two weeks ago, after the French-language debate.
Mr. Duceppe had an easy victory, not because of his oratorical prowess, but because he stuck to his script and none of his opponents distinguished themselves.
He ran a flawless campaign, hammering away at the party's slogan: " Un parti propre au Québec" - a word play that means both "clean government for Quebec" and "Quebec's own party."
By his own admission, Mr. Duceppe's biggest gaffe on the hustings was wearing a white shirt during the French-language leaders' debate, which made him look not very good on television.