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PQ leader Pauline Marois takes the stage after her party was defeated in the provincial election Monday April 7, 2014 in Montreal.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The Parti Québécois suffered a crushing defeat in Monday's election, one of the worst in the party's history.

Pauline Marois's tenure as the first female premier of Quebec was short-lived. After only 18 months in office, her minority government was ousted in no uncertain terms. She even lost her own riding of Charlevoix-Côte-de-Beaupré – and announced she is quitting politics after a seven-year stint as party leader.

"Tonight's defeat saddens me deeply," Ms. Marois told her supporters as she conceded with tears in her eyes.

"We will continue to believe that Quebec must define and promote our values," she said. "We have a duty to hold the torch of our language high and to be proud of it … Let us not forget all the battles we fought. We must promote our language at all times.

"Given the circumstances I will quit my duties. But I will stay on to conduct an orderly transition," Ms. Marois said.

The PQ's popular support was down to about 26 per cent, lower than the 28 per cent the party earned in 2007 under André Boisclair, when the PQ was reduced to third-party status.

Key ministers went down to defeat, including finance minister Nicolas Marceau, health minister Réjean Hébert and environment minister Yves-François Blanchet. But star candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau, viewed by many as being responsible for Monday's debacle after putting the referendum at the centre of the campaign, won his riding and will likely be a leadership candidate.

Three potential contenders – Mr. Péladeau, Jean-François Lysée and Bernard Drainville – took to the stage before Ms. Marois spoke to party members.

"In the 21st century, Quebec must take its decisions alone," said Mr. Péladeau.

Ms. Marois's ambiguous position on the holding of another referendum and the fractious debate on the secular charter sent voters looking for alternatives. Voters soundly rejected both.

The result for the PQ leaves the party with two difficult choices: finding a way to make political independence an attractive option for the future and choosing a leader who can rally voters to the cause.

Almost 20 years since the last referendum on sovereignty, the PQ has been through four leaders and six elections without being able to clearly defend political independence as a viable option.

This election was no different. Ms. Marois had concluded long ago that if she won a majority government it would take at least a full mandate to prepare for another referendum on sovereignty. She proposed to table a white paper on the future of Quebec to initiate the debate. And in all likelihood she would wait until the next election to test voters' desire for a referendum.

That's why Ms. Marois was unprepared for the reaction caused by Mr. Péladeau's call for independence. The PQ election strategy hadn't included arguments for defending sovereignty or another referendum. In fact, the PQ campaign strategy didn't even have an orchestrated attack against the federal Conservatives to build support for sovereignty. Mr. Péladeau put the PQ on the defensive for the rest of the campaign.

For Ms. Marois, the election was all about identity politics and economic nationalism. The PQ wanted to prove that with a multimillionaire businessman like Mr. Péladeau supporting its cause, the business community could be persuaded to come on side.

The proposal for a secular charter struck a sensitive chord with the majority of voters, sovereigntists and federalists alike. With the referendum on the back burner, the PQ was confident it could win a majority by calling on voters to choose "Quebec values" even it meant undermining the freedom of conscience of certain minorities, especially Muslims.

Progressive sovereigntists who were opposed to the charter and unable to accept a right-wing figure such as Mr. Péladeau were driven to Québec Solidaire. Conservative nationalists were tempted by François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec, which proved a deciding factor in Monday's election.

Debate before the campaign had focused primarily on the proposal in the secular charter to ban certain religious symbols in the public sector. Even though a majority supported the charter, the proposal wreaked havoc on the PQ when a popular former TV host, Janette Bertrand, raised the spectre of Muslims one day imposing their religious values on Quebec society.

As panic set in the PQ campaign over falling poll numbers, so did the improvisation. At one point Ms. Marois tried to appear compassionate, saying nobody would get fired for wearing a religious symbol. But if some workers did, she said, the government would help them find a job in the private sector. There had never been any mention of government assistance in the charter bill tabled last fall.

The following day she said tax cuts would be possible after reaching a balanced budget in two years. Yet there was never any mention of cutting taxes in the budget tabled by her government in February.

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