The separatist Parti Quebecois won a Quebec election on Tuesday but will only have enough seats to create a minority government in the predominantly French-speaking Canadian province, three major television networks predicted.
If confirmed by final results, that would make it almost impossible for the new PQ government to hold a referendum on independence. The party defeated the ruling Liberals of Premier Jean Charest after nine years in power.
The results mean that PQ leader Pauline Marois becomes the first female premier in the province's history.
"It's a historic moment for Quebecers. Every time a PQ government is elected ... it's a moment of national pride," Leo Bureau-Blouin, one of the party's victorious star candidates, told public broadcaster RDI.
The networks predicted the PQ would win 56 of the 125 seats in the provincial legislature, leaving it seven short of a majority. Previous PQ governments held independence referendums in 1980 and 1995 but both failed.
Although Marois is promising another independence vote when the time is right, that could be years away. The most recent poll shows only 28 percent of Quebecers back separation.
The PQ would need the support of other legislators to hold a vote on splitting away from Canada and none of the major opposition parties backs the idea.
Marois had in any case said she would concentrate on the economy, in particular tackling the province's large debt, imposing higher tax and royalty rates on mining firms and making foreign takeovers of Quebec companies more difficult.
"Charest was in power for nine years. He had his chance. It's time for a change," said 60-year-old voter Andre Tetreault after casting his ballot for the PQ in Quebec City.
The networks said the Liberals would win 47 seats, down 17 from the 64 they held at dissolution. To make matters worse for the party, initial results showed Charest at some risk of losing his own seat.
Quebec has a population of 7.8 million, compared with 34.5 million for all of Canada.
Nomura Global Economics analyst Charles St-Arnaud said that given the current lack of enthusiasm for independence, even a PQ majority victory would not cause much market unrest.
"I think that the election result will be more noise than anything else," he said in an email. "We could see a slight depreciation of the Canadian dollar and a widening of spreads, but nothing meaningful. What will matter more for spreads will be the first budget."
Under the Liberals, who want Quebec to stay part of Canada, relations with the federal government in Ottawa have been relatively stable since 2003.
That would change under a PQ government since Marois has made clear she wants a quick meeting with Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to demand he give Quebec overall control of immigration policy and unemployment insurance.
Harper has often railed against Quebec separatists, and if he refuses to cooperate with Marois, that could boost support for the idea of independence.
The networks said a newly created right-leaning party, the Coalition for the Future of Quebec, was trailing in third place with 20 seats. The CAQ wants to freeze all talk of a referendum for a decade and focus on the economy.
The Liberals won three successive elections from 2003 to 2008, but became increasingly unpopular amid allegations of corruption in the construction industry that might be linked to the financing of political parties.
When the 125-seat provincial assembly was dissolved, the seats were divided as follows:
Liberals -- 64
PQ -- 47
CAQ -- 9
Quebec Solidaire -- 1
Option Nationale -- 1
Independents -- 2
Vacant -- 1
(Writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Stacey Joyce and Lisa Shumaker)