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Gilles Duceppe is greeted by supporters as he enters for his election speech Monday, Jan. 23, 2006 in Montreal. (CP photo)

The Bloc Québécois managed to hold on to most of its seats in Quebec in Monday's election. But it was the Conservatives who made bigger news by scoring big gains in the province, taking votes and seats from both the Bloc and the Liberals as Quebecers rewarded Stephen Harper with critical seats he needs to help him form a cabinet representing all regions of the country.

With polls reporting from all 75 ridings, Bloc candidates were elected in 51 ridings, down three from 2004. The Liberals won in 13 ridings – a major drop from the 21 seats they'd captured in 2004. Conservative candidates got elected in 10 ridings, a big leg up from 2004's blank slate.

Of those 10 new Tory ridings, eight had been won by the BQ and two by the Liberals in 2004. In other words, some francophone ridings voted Tory this time.

One Independent candidate won in the Portneuf-Jacques Cartier riding. André Arthur, the controversial former radio host, was elected by a comfortable margin over the BQ.

While the Bloc ended up keeping most of its seats, it appeared it would do that with far fewer votes. Its share of the popular vote slipped to 42.2 per cent – a 6.7 percentage point drop from the 48.9 per cent it garnered in 2004. That represents a major disappointment for the Bloc, which early in the campaign had mused about perhaps getting 50 per cent support.

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Marc Garneau speaks to the CBC.

But the biggest swings came in the fortunes of the Liberals and Conservatives. Liberal popular vote plunged by 13.3 percentage points from the last election to 20.6 per cent, placing them in third spot in Quebec behind the Conservatives.

The Tories tripled their popular support to 24.6 per cent. About 3.6 million votes were counted in Quebec by 1:40 a.m. EST. Turnout in the province was 62.7 per cent, up 3.4 percentage points from 2004.

The NDP, never much of a factor in Quebec politics, received 7.5 per cent of the vote. The party garnered 4.6 per cent of the popular vote in Quebec last time out but failed to win any seats then. It didn't win any seats in Quebec this time either.

Both Liberal Leader Paul Martin and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe hung on to their seats.

But with the loss of the government, Martin announced early Tuesday morning he will step down as Liberal leader and will not lead the party into the next election. "I have always been at the service of the party and I will do this tomorrow and forever," he told supporters in Montreal.

Three federal cabinet ministers went down to defeat in Quebec – all to BQ candidates and all in the Montreal area. Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew was defeated by Vivian Barbeau, a former president of the Quebec Federation of Women, in Papineau riding. Liza Frulla, the minister of Canadian heritage, lost to Thierry St-Cyr in the riding of Jeanne-Le Ber. Jacques Saada, the minister of economic development for Quebec, lost to Marcel Lussier in Brossard-La Prairie.

The Bloc took four seats from the Liberals in greater Montreal. Star Liberal candidate and former astronaut Marc Garneau lost by almost 10,000 votes in the riding of Vaudreuil-Soulanges.

The Conservative gains in Quebec represent a major breakthrough in a province that hasn't exactly been fertile territory for the party recently. The Tories failed to win a single Quebec seat in 2004 and captured only 8.8 per cent of the popular vote. In the 2000 election, the Conservatives took just one riding.

Tory wins in Quebec to make cabinet making easier

Making gains in Quebec – and particularly winning seats – was vitally important for Harper, who will now be able to form a cabinet with Quebec representation.

Possible Quebec Tory cabinet candidates include:

  • Maxime Bernier, an insurance company executive elected in the riding of Beauce;
  • Lawrence Cannon, a Harper aide and former Bourassa cabinet minister elected in the riding of Pontiac in western Quebec;
  • Josée Verner, elected in the riding of Louis Saint-Laurent;
  • Jean-Pierre Blackburn, a former Progressive Conservative MP, elected in the riding of Jonquière-Alma

Harper's Quebec platform, announced five weeks ago, was widely credited with sparking the turnaround in Tory fortunes in the province. He promised a kind of "open federalism" which, for example, could see Quebec take a seat beside Canada at some international gatherings. Harper's pledge to address the "fiscal imbalance" between Ottawa and the provinces also won praise from Liberal Premier Jean Charest.

In the last election, the Bloc viewed the Liberal party as its only real opponent. Not this time. In the dying days of the campaign, the Bloc took out full-page newspaper ads in eastern Quebec, where Tory support was seen to be surging, warning Quebecers not to vote Conservative. "We will not let Calgary decide for Quebec," the ad's headline read.

In the first weeks of this campaign, Duceppe agreed with suggestions that if the Bloc received 50 per cent of the popular vote, it would be of symbolic importance because it would be the first time any pro-sovereignty party would have the support of the absolute majority of voting Quebecers.

Some observers called that one of Duceppe's rare mistakes on the campaign trail. Sure enough, as the campaign wore on and polls suggested the BQ's share of the vote would fall short of that 50-per-cent mark, Duceppe backpedalled. He said his main focus was merely to "improve" on 2004's results. He ended up doing neither. Federalists will view the election results in Quebec as a blow to the sovereignty movement.

Martin tried to position the Liberals as the only federalist party that could stand up to the BQ. But the Liberals went into the campaign with a lot of baggage. The issue of trust figured prominently from the moment the campaign began. The BQ, the Conservatives and the NDP repeatedly hammered home that the sponsorship scandal had its roots in Liberal ranks.

Even though the Gomery inquiry cleared Paul Martin, the sponsorship scandal resonated deeply in Quebec. The CEO of one polling organization declared that, among Quebecers who identified themselves as sovereigntists, the desire for a change in Ottawa was higher than for any other group, except perhaps Alberta Conservative voters.