MONTREAL - Quebec voters head to the polls Monday to pick a new government to lead Canada's French-speaking province, after a campaign that saw the separatist ruling party renew calls for independence.
But the Parti Quebecois's renewed talk of having the province break away from Canada could prove costly, with Premier Pauline Marois's party trailing in the polls behind the pro-unity Quebec Liberals.
Marois, whose government is in the minority, had called the midterm elections 18 months into the PQ's mandate, hoping to gain seats to form a majority government.
The majority would be needed to ensure passage of the PQ's proposed secular values charter. It would ban public sector workers from wearing religious apparel, including headscarves, turbans and yarmulkes.
But the fight for the province's six million voters quickly turned to focus on whether a majority PQ government would hold a third referendum on Quebec independence during its next mandate.
Quebecers twice rejected splitting from the rest of Canada in 1980 and 1995 referendums. And the latest polling shows two out of three Quebecers do not want to reopen this thorny debate.
If Marois loses, it would mark the first time in four decades that a government failed to secure a second term in legislative elections.
It would also mark a major setback for the separatist movement and be devastating politically for Marois, who became the province's first female premier in September 2012 after nine years of Liberal rule.
In order to obtain a majority government, she needs to score at least 63 of the 125 seats in the legislature.
But in the latest polls released Saturday, the Liberals enjoyed a solid lead of 38 per cent against the PQ's 29 per cent.
Two minor parties - the Coalition Avenir Quebec and the leftist Quebec Solidaire - trailed behind.
If the election results bear out those trends, the province's next premier would be Liberal leader Philippe Couillard, who fanned fears of economic and social turmoil should a majority PQ government hell-bent on Quebec independence win the vote.
And Marois's efforts to focus on the values charter instead were hampered significantly after PQ candidate and multimillionaire media magnate Pierre Karl Peladeau vowed to "make Quebec a country" as he pumped his fist.
On the eve of the vote, Marois urged her supporters to persuaded undecided voters to head to the polls because "while it's true that it's tight, nothing's been decided yet." Polls say about a quarter of the electorate is has yet to make a final choice.
Couillard, meanwhile, courted voters in the eastern region of Gaspesie, promising to support oil exploration and industrial investments.
If the PQ loses after only one term, Quebec politics could take a more classic left-versus-right tack, after four decades of Quebec infighting over independence.
"This is a last kick at the can for the Parti Quebecois," said University of Montreal professor Claire Durant.