Almost complete results showed the Quebec Liberal Party led by Jean Charest won a strong majority in the 125-member National Assembly legislature to form a new provincial government.
The Liberal victory on Monday was thorough, reaching across the province. The anti-separatist party was even running neck-in-neck with the Parti Quebecois among Francophone voters who comprise the core of its support.
A win would have given the Parti Quebecois, which was created to deliver independence, a third-straight term in office and a boost for proponents of holding another referendum on sovereignty within about three years.
In his victory speech, the 44-year-old Charest promised a change from the past acrimony between Quebec's separatist leadership and the rest of Canada, but made clear his allegiance was to the province.
"Our first mission will be to defend Quebec's interest with passion," he said, signaling his intention to challenge the federal government for more tax revenue and other money to help pay for services such as health care.
With more than 99 percent of polls reporting, the Liberals had 45.9 percent of the votes to 33.2 percent for the Parti Quebecois. In third was the Action Democratique du Quebec at 18.3 percent. The turnout of 3.8 million voters was 70 percent of the 5.4 million eligible.
A count by the Canadian Press news agency had the Liberals winning 76 National Assembly seats to 45 for the Parti Quebecois and four for the ADQ. Before the election, the breakdown was 67 seats for the Parti Quebecois, 50 for the Liberals and five for the ADQ, with two independents and one vacant.
The Liberal victory signaled the continued calming of separatist sentiment in a province where 80 percent of the people speak French. It also was a triumph for Prime Minister Jean Chretien, head of the federal Liberal Party, who has battled against Quebec's succession throughout his political career.
"It is for me an element of satisfaction," Chretien told reporters in the Dominican Republic, where he is on a state visit. "It's a confirmation that the threat of separation has disappeared. This is very, very good for Canada."
Opinion polls had indicated a race too close to call, but a surge in support for the Liberals in the final weeks carried over to election day.
Pollsters said voters wanted change after nine years of Parti Quebecois rule, including the divisive 1995 sovereignty referendum that failed by the narrowest of margins — less than a percentage point.
Charest almost came to power in the previous election in 1998, when he and the Liberals attracted the most votes but failed to muster a legislative majority. Both Charest and Premier Bernard Landry, the Parti Quebecois leader, reclaimed their seats in the legislature Monday.
When compared with results from the 1998 election, popular support for the Liberals rose only two points to 46 percent, CBS News reports. The Action Democratique surged six points to 18 percent from 12 percent, while the Parti Quebecois plunged 10 points to 33 percent from 43 percent.
Landry, 66, conceded defeat by congratulating Charest for "such an impressive victory."
"I know this is not exactly what you wanted to hear, but in the spirit of democracy, we should speak well of those who won," he said as supporters embraced in the party's election headquarters.
Landry also promised to continue the pursuit of sovereignty, acknowledging his goal of another referendum on the issue within 1,000 days had been unpopular.
"But a few thousand more days, what are a few thousand days in the history of a nation?" he said.
Landry's party, aware of public disenchantment with the sovereignty debate, had softened its separatist message in the campaign.
Charest, however, kept the sovereignty issue prominent saying Landry and his party wanted to hold another referendum on breaking away from Canada.
Quebec, about twice the size of Texas, is far different from the rest of Canada. Its legal system is based on the Napoleonic Code, while the rest of Canada follows English common law. It raises its own income tax and sets its own immigration rules, geared to attract French-speakers.
At the Parti Quebecois election headquarters, 21-year-old supporter Paul Charron wrapped himself in the blue and white Quebec flag and said the sovereignty movement would recover.
"In four years we'll be back and stronger," Charron said. "I voted for a country, I voted for a nation. It was my first time voting and it's not easy, but we'll be back."