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André Richard was still a young man when he first chose to support the Parti Québécois in the milestone 1976 election that redefined Quebec's political landscape.

For seven consecutive provincial elections, Mr. Richard, a small-town teacher who believes in Quebec independence, voted for the PQ.

But on this election day in Quebec, Mr. Richard, who is now 56, for the first time will cast a ballot for another party, the Action Démocratique du Québec.

His decision and that of hundreds of thousands of other voters to back the up-and-coming ADQ will signal the end of three decades of federalist-or-separatist division in Quebec politics.

Restless, fed up with the PQ and the Liberals, the two traditional parties that have dominated Quebec politics, many voters are looking at the ADQ as an outlet for their dissatisfaction.

"Things are tough," said Mr. Richard, who lives in Compton, 160 kilometres southeast of Montreal. "We're taxed a lot. Our roads aren't in good shape. Our health-care system isn't going well."

Thanks to a populist, plain-spoken style, ADQ Leader Mario Dumont has tapped into this vein of disappointment, weakening the Liberals and breaking the PQ's monopoly on the nationalist vote.

With a so-called autonomist platform, which seeks more powers for Quebec but shies away from separation, he has siphoned voters from both the federalist and separatist ranks.

His prime targets are the fence-sitters who previously had no other choice but to pick either the PQ or the Liberals.

Mr. Richard, for example, is voting for the ADQ because he wants a strong opposition.

He hasn't, however, given up on his dream of seeing Quebec become a country.

"We have to wait for the right time and wait for the right people," he said in an indictment of the current PQ leadership.

"It'll take a man with a lot of charisma and other people around him with charisma, too."

At the same time, Liberal supporters are also lured by the ADQ.

In Montreal, James Dunn, 55, a retired factory worker, is considering voting ADQ. He isn't happy about Liberal Leader Jean Charest's term in power, feeling that the incumbent Premier is uninspiring and complacent.

"I'm not sure about the Liberal Leader . . . It's his attitude sometimes," Mr. Dunn said.

"I wished someone would kick his ass. He needs to smarten up and take better care of Montreal and the province."

There was always a nationalist, small-c conservative electorate in Quebec. Stronger in rural and small-town Quebec but not restricted there, it is a demographic segment sometimes referred to as the vieux fond bleu and associated with now-defunct parties such as the Union Nationale or the Créditistes.

Its existence was, however, masked by the polarization that has marked Quebec politics since the mid-1970s. After the 1976 election, conservative Quebec nationalists migrated to the PQ, aligning themselves with urban social-democrats in a common nation-building project.

At the federal level, last year's breakthrough by Stephen Harper's Conservatives was a sign that the sovereigntist movement could not take the hinterland francophone electorate for granted.

In this election, in the absence of a referendum on the horizon and with André Boisclair considered a weak PQ leader, those voters feel free to drift to Mr. Dumont's party.

Stéphanie Mercier, a 20-year-old nursing student in Hull, comes from Château-Richer, a small town near Quebec City. Her father supports the PQ. She voted for the Bloc Québécois in last year's federal election.

But she will go for the ADQ this time.

"If we don't separate, it's not the end of the world," she said. "What's important to me is that things move forward in Quebec."

Some former PQ voters are more at ease in the more conservative ADQ now that Mr. Dumont's party has grown into a genuine presence.

That old touchstone of Quebec politics, the clash between French and English speakers, wasn't present during the election.

Instead, there were arguments about whether minorities fit into a more traditional vision of Quebec society.

Since the fall, an angry debate over accommodating religious minorities roiled the province.

More incidents erupted during the election campaign. People complained that their party at a sugar shack was curbed by Muslim patrons who needed prayer space. There was outrage over whether Muslim women should lift their face veils to identify themselves when they vote.

Mr. Dumont barely touched on those issues during the campaign, but he had already gained a lot of capital last fall when he was the only leader who spoke forcefully against accommodations, saying Quebec had gone too far in placating religious minorities.

And his supporters agree. "We have to be secular; there can't be favouritism when it comes to religions," Ms. Mercier said. "The majority shouldn't have to adapt to a few people."

WHAT THE PARTY LEADERS NEED TO DO TO WIN

ANDRÉ

BOISCLAIR

The best case scenario for the Parti Québécois is to form a minority government. For that to happen, André Boisclair needs sovereignists to show up at the polls, unlike in 2003, when a half-million people who voted PQ in 1998 stayed home and handed the Liberals an easy victory. He also needs to win a majority of the 30 ridings where there are tight three-way races.

MARIO

DUMONT Since the ADQ is not a player in 42 of the 125 ridings, Mario Dumont needs to get out his vote in the remaining 83 ridings. He has tapped into the frustrations of voters in outlying regions, especially conservative and nationalist bastions that cut across many of the same 27 ridings won by Réal Caouette's Créditistes in 1962, and needs to translate that into votes. He needs to hope that voters who feel abandoned have not just parked their votes with him until they arrived at the booth.

JEAN

CHAREST For the Liberals to win re-election, they need two things to happen. All of their supporters must turn out. More importantly, they need disgruntled federalists to stay home, rather than vote for the ADQ. One problem is that advance polls show a record 10 per cent of the 5.6 million eligible voters have already voted and the

Liberals are running a distant third at 24 per cent among the crucial francophone voters.

Five ridings to watch

Jean-Talon : Health Minister Philippe Couillard left his seat in the Liberal stronghold of Mont-Royal in Montreal to seek re-election in this Quebec City riding. But with the wave of support for the ADQ threatening to sweep the city, Dr. Couillard finds himself in a tough battle. If the Liberals can't win here with a candidate as strong as Dr. Couillard, it won't bode well for the party's fortunes in the other ridings in the Quebec City region, where Liberals held eight of the 11 seats.

Crémazie: This riding, with Laurier-Dorion, is one of two seats in Montreal where a real race is expected. The PQ have their eyes set on Lisette Lapointe, the wife of former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau, to win back the riding they lost in a 1997 by-election. Mr. Parizeau's high profile may serve Ms. Lapointe well in a riding where sovereigntists need to show up in force, since the Liberals can rely on a large percentage of non-francophone voters here. (The ADQ is not a major factor in any of the 28 Montreal ridings.)

Beauce-Sud: All eight ridings in the Chaudière-Appalache region, just south of Quebec City, are within the ADQ's grasp. But none have shown as much loyalty to the provincial Liberals as Beauce-Sud, a staunchly federalist riding. If the Liberal incumbent, Diane Leblanc, loses Beauce-Sud, that will spell doom for Jean Charest's political fortunes elsewhere in the province.

Jonquière: The Liberals won the riding in Quebec's nationalist hinterland in 2003 and were hoping for more of the same throughout the predominantly francophone Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region, where the ADQ hardly appears on the political radar. This is a riding where the traditional federalist and sovereigntist forces still hammer it out. Winning here would give PQ Leader André Boisclair the momentum he needs to sweep all five ridings in the region in his hopes of forming a minority government.

Saint-Jean: This bellwether riding has voted for the winning party in every election but one since 1892. Public-opinion polls indicate a tight battle between the ADQ and the PQ, leaving the Liberals far behind. Look to this riding, located southeast of Montreal, to set the pace on election night. An ADQ victory could spell a major breakthrough for the party in the middle-class suburban belt around the island of Montreal, where tight three-way races will determine the outcome of the provincial election.