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On the face of it, the Liberal Party's clear-cut win looks like the political comeback of the year. Who would have bet, just 33 days ago, that Philippe Couillard would become the 31st premier of Quebec?

But make no mistake. This is not Mr. Couillard's win as much as Pauline Marois's crushing defeat.

The Parti Québécois Premier called this election to grab the majority she believed was finally within reach. However, the campaign slid out of her control almost from day one. And this unequivocal loss foreshadows dark days, both for her party and for Ms. Marois, who even lost her own Charlevoix riding.

Even at the best of times, the PQ indulges in self-inflicted wounds. And the hangover from the 2014 election promises to be as nasty as the mud-slinging campaign.

In fact, things went so wrong for Ms. Marois that it was as if a Liberal strategist had wrapped himself in a Quebec flag and somehow infiltrated the PQ's headquarters to reshape its game plan to Mr. Couillard's advantage.

Pierre Karl Péladeau was a dream come true for the Liberals. Never could they have drummed up a more credible threat of a third referendum than the image of the Quebec media mogul with his fist raised high for an independent Quebec. The national question monopolized the campaign's first two weeks.

The PQ clumsily attempted to bring its charter of values to the forefront. But the support of legendary television host Janette Bertrand backfired and the PQ leader failed to dissociate herself from Ms. Bertrand's xenophobic remarks. Even some staunch charter supporters cringed when they heard Ms. Bertrand voice fears that Muslim men would have her turned away from her apartment building's swimming pool.

Ms. Marois bet her government on the charter. Most Quebeckers favour a secular state, and about half the population sees no harm in forbidding public sector employees from wearing visible religious symbols.

And yet the old isolated incidents that gave birth to the charter are not at the forefront of Quebeckers' concerns.

Survey after survey showed they were more preoccupied with jobs, Quebec's sluggish economy, the province's health-care network or its staggering debt – "les vraies affaires" or the real issues, as the Liberal slogan had it.

This message will resonate loud when the PQ wakes up on Tuesday. It will not be pretty. PQ members will blame Mr. Péladeau and the leader who unrolled the red carpet for him. Expect knives to fly.

PQ leaders have always had to strike a delicate balance between the impatient sovereigntists and those who would rather govern while waiting for the stars to align. It is a tightrope act that does not allow for missteps.

The PQ caucus was quick to show André Boisclair the door after the party's disastrous results in the 2007 election. With 28 per cent of the vote, the party's worst showing since 1970, the PQ did not even qualify as Quebec's official opposition.

With about 25 per cent of the vote, the PQ under Ms. Marois fared even worse, although it will be in opposition. François Legault's strong performance and the Coalition Avenir Québec's good showing, with 23 per cent of the vote, did not translate into additional ridings.

In her 33-year career at the PQ, Ms. Marois has seen it all. She weathered one of the party's worst political storms, in 2011. Seven PQ MNAs quit or were forced out in a leadership crisis sparked by Ms. Marois' support for a bill that would help Quebec City attract an NHL franchise at the expense of citizen's rights.

Quebeckers came to admire Ms. Marois for her resilience, hence her nickname, "Dame de Béton." But with her own defeat, her shield of concrete now looks cracked beyond repair.

It is hard to see how Ms. Marois can hold on to the PQ's leadership. And that will leave the PQ more fractured than ever before.

Some will want to leave identity politics behind. And others, such as the re-elected Bernard Drainville or the newly elected Mr. Péladeau, will press on with whatever troops are willing to march toward Quebec independence.

Even if the Liberals are back in power after an 18-month PQ stint, sovereignty is not dead. About a third of Quebeckers want a country, rain or shine. But for now, it is not going anywhere.