MONTREAL – The doctor is in.
Philippe Couillard, a former neurosurgeon, led his Liberal troops to a majority win in the Quebec election Monday night, 18 months after the party was turfed out of power under Jean Charest.
The red Liberal tide flowed early across Quebec's electoral map, sweeping over the incumbent Parti Quebecois, which had been battered by questions about its plans for a third sovereignty referendum that most Quebecers flatly said they didn't want.
The Liberals had between 40 and 45 per cent of the popular vote, compared with less than 30 per cent for the PQ.
The Coalition for Quebec's Future, which had rebounded in support in recent days, came in a distant third.
While no pundit would be foolish enough to declare sovereignty dead, the option has likely been put to sleep for a while. Some observers have suggested it could be years, if not decades, before it is revived.
Couillard, who was a popular health minister under Charest until 2008, stoked the fears of a referendum after star PQ candidate Pierre Karl Peladeau entered the election and declared he wanted to build an independent Quebec.
PQ Leader Pauline Marois mused what a sovereign Quebec would be like for days after that, something that allowed her party to be knocked off its message to the point where it never really recovered.
Monday's results in Quebec no doubt prompted a sigh of relief in Ottawa as well.
With the PQ out, it means Prime Minister Stephen Harper won't have to worry about a national unity crisis as he heads toward the 2015 election.
It will also not preoccupy Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair, who draws most of his New Democratic Party caucus from the province, some of whom expressed sovereigntist sympathies at one time or another.
The 33-day campaign had been considered as one of the nastiest in decades.
Voters had complained in the weeks leading up to the vote that bread-and-butter issues had received little attention as politicians fired potshots over the possibility of another sovereignty referendum or challenged each other on ethics.
Marois, whose party formed a minority government in the 2012 election, was hoping to win a majority of the province's 125 ridings _ a scenario that could have eventually led to another referendum.
“It is a beautiful day,'' she told reporters after she cast her ballot in the riding of Charlevoix-Cote-de-Beaupre, northeast of Quebec City.
“I am very serene at this moment. I trust Quebecers will choose a good government to lead them and I am confident about tonight.''
Hours later, she would find out the choice wasn't her.
Recent opinion polls had indicated the momentum was with Couillard's Liberals, although analysts were leery about predicting the size of the win given polling blunders in the Alberta and British Columbia provincial elections and in the estimations of Quebec Liberal strength in 2012.
Couillard, who trained as a neurosurgeon, was asked Monday whether it was more stressful performing brain surgery or trying to become Quebec premier.
“They're pretty different but in some ways they're quite alike,'' he replied after voting in his riding of Roberval, a few hours north of Quebec City.
“We are fortunate to live in a democracy where we vote for our government every four years _ or sometimes more often . . . . I'm happy about the campaign we had. I'm confident about the result but it's now time for citizens to speak. Politicians have spoken enough.''
The PQ had hoped to capitalize on identity politics, as it did in 2012, by making its secular charter the focus of the campaign.
But that plan was derailed when Peladeau pumped his fist and announced just days after Marois called the election he had left the business world for politics so he could build an independent Quebec for his children.
Couillard repeatedly asserted during the campaign that a PQ majority government would mean another referendum, which polls constantly suggest is something a majority of Quebecers do not want.
Marois's defence was that Quebecers were voting only for a government Monday and not on whether there would be another referendum.
She reiterated throughout the campaign she would hold a plebiscite only when she believes Quebecers are ready for one.
One wild card in Monday's vote was thought to be the Coalition party.
The right-of-centre party, which is led by former PQ cabinet minister Francois Legault, saw its support climb in polls late in the campaign and could spoil the hopes of a PQ or Liberal majority.
Legault was widely believed to have performed strongly in the two televised debates featuring the leaders.
The former PQ cabinet minister describes himself as a nationalist who wants a moratorium on sovereignty referendums. His party's voters are mostly small-c conservatives.
At dissolution, the PQ had 54 seats, while the Liberals had 49. The Coalition had 18, Quebec solidaire two and there were two Independents.
Nineteen per cent of the six million eligible voters cast a ballot in advance polling. As of 5:30 p.m. Monday, the percentage of Quebecers who had voted stood at 52.8 per cent, including the advance polling.
In the 2012 election, 53 per cent of eligible voters had cast a ballot as of 5:30 p.m., including the advance polling.
Turnout at the end of the day was 74.6 per cent.