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Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard and his wife Suzanne Pilote walk into the campaign headquarters for election returns Monday, April 7, 2014 in St-Felicien Que.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Federal politicians can now breathe normally. For 33 days they held it in, waiting out a Quebec election that was twisting and turning in unpredictable ways.

Instead of the angst of a possible referendum, they will wake up to Premier-elect Philippe Couillard, and four years of federalist government in Quebec City. Things have changed.

One thing that has changed for all of them is that Mr. Couillard is suddenly a man they must reckon with: he will have influence, over politics in Quebec and the dynamics of the federation, that they can't ignore.

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For Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mr. Couillard might suddenly be the second-most powerful leader in Confederation. Mr. Harper has never really faced a premier who could effectively challenge his handling of federal-provincial relations. Mr. Couillard could be, if he chooses.

Mr. Couillard is a new premier-in-waiting, flush with a majority mandate, representing the country's second-biggest province. Most premiers come from one side of a left-right divide, making them either natural allies of Mr. Harper's Conservatives, or easily dismissed adversaries; Ontario's Kathleen Wynne is sometimes shrugged off by Mr. Harper's people as the extension of the federal Liberals.

But Philippe Couillard comes as the representative of Quebec's federalists. He didn't get there by making demands of Ottawa. He's certainly no sovereigntist who might be suspected of trying to sow discord. He's got something of a bully pulpit. The Conservatives aren't relying on winning seats in Quebec, but Mr. Couillard's view of how the federation is run will matter elsewhere, so Mr. Harper will have reason to keep him happy.

Mr. Harper certainly tried to keep Jean Charest happy in his early days in power, trooping to Quebec make symbolic concessions and some concrete ones. The relationship turned tense later – just as Mr. Harper's Tories lost hope in a Quebec breakthrough. But Mr. Harper's era of relative peace with provinces has been cracking lately. The good news for Mr. Harper is that Mr. Couillard shows no inclination to pick fights; the bad news is that Mr. Couillard will have weight if he does.

The election of a federalist majority is still a sigh of relief for Mr. Harper. He stayed silent, and effectively neutral, during the election campaign, for fear of upsetting the balance.

So did the NDP's Thomas Mulcair, whose party has allies in every camp. Even Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, whose party criticized the NDP for failing to side with federalists, was pretty quiet for most of the campaign: his backing of the Quebec Liberals forced Mr. Couillard to muse that he would try to convince Mr. Trudeau to support Constitutional change, knocking him off message. Mr. Trudeau became more discreet until the results came in Monday night.

The Liberal Leader might have to watch his words again. Mr. Trudeau's leadership has boosted his party's hopes in Quebec, but Mr. Couillard will be the premier now. Divisions between them on important Quebec issues could send Mr. Trudeau scrambling to explain.

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And Mr. Trudeau has lost something else: a target. He had played off Ms. Marois more than any other leader. He was the first to blast her proposed Charter of Quebec Values, which wold have banned overt religious symbols in the public service. His Liberal Party is viewed by Quebeckers as the vehicle that defends Canada against separatists, so when the political debate is polarized between federalists and separatists, it can expect to gain. Now it doesn't have Ms. Marois and the PQ to kick around anymore.

Perhaps more than any other leader, the NDP's Thomas Mulcair should be relieved. Of course, he'll hope that Liberal red doesn't rub off at the federal level. But his party, which won the support of many sovereigntists in the next election and became the largest federal party in Quebec, won't have to navigate a tricky debate, worrying about losing support on both sides. The PQ's defeat means separatists are in disarray, which, they will hope, will hurt the Bloc Québécois's chance of revival.

But then the NDP has another problem. Many of the NDP's supporters in Quebec backed the parties that didn't win, like Québec Solidaire and the Parti Québécois. But now Mr. Couillard speaks for Quebec.

Follow me on Twitter: @camrclark

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