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Quebec Liberal leader Philippe Couillard arrives at his election rally headquarters with his wife Suzanne Pilote in St. Felicien, Quebec, April 7, 2014.


Quebec voters have delivered an unlikely majority government to staunch federalist Philippe Couillard, granting Canadians respite from the national unity wars for four years and beyond.

Mr. Couillard's victory was a stunning rebuke to the Parti Québécois and Leader Pauline Marois, who called the election for the express purpose of winning a majority government, and campaigned hard on a divisive issue of religious identity. The result marks the return to power of the provincial Liberal Party, scandal-ridden and defeated just 18 months ago.

For a brief moment in the election campaign, the possibility of a referendum and wrenching return of a national unity crisis appeared ready to surface. Voters had other ideas, stampeding away from the PQ at the mere thought and giving the party its smallest share of the popular vote in 44 years. Ms. Marois lost her own seat.

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The crestfallen PQ Leader thanked her supporters and congratulated Mr. Couillard. "Quebeckers have spoken and we must respect it," she said in her concession speech. She then launched a broadside at the Liberals – "I'm worried about our language" – and announced she would step down as party leader.

The campaign started with questions over Mr. Couillard's ability to lead his first campaign and ended in a triumph for the physician who inherited the party from the consummate political performer, Jean Charest.

The vote broke a cycle that has dominated Quebec politics since the 1970s, when the Parti Québécois and Liberals started alternating their hold on power every eight or nine years. This time, the PQ only held on for 18 months of minority rule before the spectre of a referendum sent voters running back to the Liberals.

Mr. Couillard reached deep into PQ territory to take seats, including his own Roberval riding in the separatist heartland of Saguenay. He took away some of the Coalition Avenir Québec's stranglehold on the Quebec City region. The region around Trois-Rivières, thought to be a horserace, went conclusively for the Liberals.

With nearly all of the votes counted, results showed the scope of the triumph for the rookie Liberal Leader: Liberals won or were leading in 70 electoral districts, compared to 30 for the PQ and 22 for the CAQ. Quebec Solidaire was leading in three seats. The Liberals needed 63 seats for a majority.

The campaign saw wild swings in popular support. Ms. Marois called the election with a commanding lead she saw melt away as Quebeckers' distaste for a referendum crystalized with a raised-fist cry for a country by media magnate Pierre Karl Péladeau. Her attempts to shift back to her once-popular plan to ban religious symbols from the public service did not help.

Mr. Couillard's main job from that day on was to stay out of the way. Lingering questions over corruption under the previous Liberal government under Mr. Charest did not stop the momentum.

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The election campaign started with the PQ holding 54 seats, five more than the Liberals. The CAQ held the balance of power with 18 seats.

Mr. Couillard, 56, was the only rookie among the main party leaders. With time, it became easier to forget he only took over the Liberals one year ago.

Coming from a line of Couillard physicians, the neurosurgeon applied a medical-school level of rigour to learning how to be a better politician. The stump speech he committed to memory was cut from a repetitive 45 minutes to a punchy 17. As PQ campaign troubles mounted, he learned to stick to his script as much as possible.

Mr. Couillard, however, is still no Jean Charest when it comes to the art of politics. He occasionally talks down to the crowd, explaining to them what he described as "difficult words" like infrastructure and Bloomberg News. His excursions in hand-shaking and baby-kissing look more like a doctor on rounds than a man bathing in the love of his people.

On Monday night, however, his words resonated. "The time of inflicting wounds is over," he said. "We are all Quebeckers. We should focus on what brings us together. Division is over. Reconciliation begins."

While Mr. Couillard stayed on safe territory as he built a lead in polls, his campaign was not completely risk-free. His defence of bilingualism and federalism was more fervent than that of any political leader in provincial politics in decades.

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On bilingualism, Mr. Couillard seemed to tap into a sentiment that has often gone ignored in Quebec. In stop after stop in French-speaking Quebec – Thetford Mines, Victoriaville, Sept-Îles – his loudest applause lines often came when he would declare he wanted every Grade 6 student to be taught English.

The worst moment of his campaign, he admitted, was during the second debate when he said English was indispensable for factory-floor workers who might come into contact with English-speaking clients.

Francophones fought for decades for the right to work at such jobs in French. He said on the final day of campaigning that he meant to talk about customer service jobs that are often bilingual posts in Quebec. Such a lapse would have seriously harmed other leaders, such as Mr. Charest. Mr. Couillard, a former hockey player, just skated away.

Follow me on Twitter: @perreaux

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