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Montreal Mayor Pierre Bourque -- the tireless promoter of a merged megacity -- went down to defeat at the hands of rival Gérald Tremblay in a closely fought race yesterday.

The vote was also a strong message of discontent to the provincial Parti Québécois government, which introduced the controversial legislation last year to merge the province's major cities with their suburbs.

Mr. Tremblay, around whom the antimerger forces had clustered, won about 50 per cent of the popular vote, compared with about 44 per cent for Mr. Bourque in the historic election to decide who will lead the giant new island-wide city of Montreal.

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In his victory speech, Mr. Tremblay, a former Quebec Liberal industry minister, called for an end to the discord over the issue. "Our challenge is to put aside our differences. It is to unite," he said.

Mr. Bourque acknowledged in his concession speech that his Vision Montréal party -- which counted for much of its support upon francophones and Montrealers -- failed to make the necessary inroads in the crucial suburbs.

"It's a resounding setback," he said. But he quickly added that his One Island, One City initiative will stand. "One Island, One City is a heritage for all of us."

In the final days of the campaign, the battle between Mr. Bourque and Mr. Tremblay was judged too close to call.

In the end, Mr. Bourque, a tree-loving, two-time mayor first elected in 1994, could not muster the support needed to fend off Mr. Tremblay's challenge, which capitalized on an angry suburban backlash against the forced merger. Mr. Tremblay led Mr. Bourque by a slim margin during most of the evening's ballot counting.

The vote capped a lengthy campaign that included 14 public debates pitting Mr. Bourque, 59, the former head of Montreal's Botanical Gardens, against Mr. Tremblay, also 59.

The megamerger issue was more deeply divisive in Montreal than in Toronto's megafusion, which brought together six cities. All told, 28 municipalities are to be amalgamated into an island-wide entity of 1.8 million people.

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Many suburbs fought vociferously against being swallowed up, and the bitter language debate emerged as an important theme as anglophone communities argued they were losing their autonomy and decision-making ability over linguistic matters.

On the other hand, many supporters of Mr. Bourque's One Island, One City plan argued that the wealthier suburbs had for too long unfairly benefited from Montreal as a place to work and play without giving anything back.

Solid suburban backing proved to be Mr. Tremblay's strong suit yesterday in his coalition of left-leaning Montreal councillors and right-of-centre suburban antimerger mayors. By 9 p.m., two hours after the polls closed, results showed 71 per cent of suburban Montrealers had voted for Mr. Tremblay, while only 29 per cent voted for Mr. Bourque, according to the RDI all-news television network.

Mr. Tremblay's team also won a majority of the seats on the 105-member city council.

Still, the new mayor faces a potentially rocky four-year mandate in city hall.

Pundits predict that voting to allocate how much money will go to which neighbourhoods will be stormy.

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Antimerger forces have vowed to continue their fight, and provincial Liberal Leader Jean Charest has promised that if he is elected premier in the next provincial vote he will allow municipalities anywhere in Quebec to opt out of the new civic agglomerations and become autonomous again.

Peter Trent, the mayor of the well-heeled Montreal suburb of Westmount who stands to lose his job, has said he will maintain the pressure on Mr. Charest's Liberals to keep their promise.

In Quebec City, where 13 municipalities will be fused into one, incumbent mayor Jean-Paul L'Allier won handily, as predicted, against Andrée Boucher, the mayor of the suburb of Ste-Foy and a vocal antimerger crusader.

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