MONTREAL (AFP) - Canada's Quebec province voted out a separatist government on Monday, choosing a former neurosurgeon and his federalist Liberal party to lead a promised economic rally.
Television networks predicted a Liberal victory soon after the polls closed at 8pm (0000 GMT Tuesday).
Early results showed Philippe Couillard's Liberals in the lead with 44 per cent of votes cast, followed by the separatist Parti Quebecois with 27 per cent.
The Coalition Avenir Quebec and Quebec Solidaire rounded up 17 per cent and five per cent support, respectively.
Quebec's first female premier, Pauline Marois, called the snap elections 18 months into her first mandate, hoping to gain seats to form a majority government.
The main opposition Liberals' new leader was untested and its usual economic platform was in shambles.
But what at first looked like a sure win for Marois's Party Quebecois (PQ) quickly turned round during one of the nastiest campaigns in Canadian history, with the Liberals jumping into the lead in the final stretch.
What began as a campaign about a PQ-proposed secular values charter that would ban public sector workers from wearing religious apparel, including headscarves, turbans and yarmulkes, quickly turned to focus on whether a majority PQ government would hold a third referendum on Quebec independence in its second mandate.
Quebecers rejected splitting from the rest of Canada in 1980 and 1995 referendums. And recent polling shows two out of three Quebecers do not want to reopen the thorny debate.
During the campaign, Couillard warned of economic and social turmoil should a majority PQ government bent on Quebec independence win, while also touting his party as more likely to spur a sluggish Quebec economy that has trailed other Canadian provinces.
In order to form a majority government, a party needs to win at least 63 of the 125 seats in the Quebec legislature.
At 9pm (0100 GMT), the Liberals had won or were leading in 74 electoral districts, up 25 seats from before the election, while the PQ was at 37.