Montreal Mayor Pierre Bourque conceded defeat late Sunday in a tight election race that appeared to split voters over a plan to merge municipalities.

He was beaten by Gerald Tremblay, a former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister under Robert Bourassa in the early 1990s.

The provincial government's plan to amalgamate more than two dozen communities around Montreal into one mega-city of 1.8 million on Jan. 1, 2002, was a key part of the election.

Bourque backed the proposal, despite numerous demonstrations by voters unhappy over what they insisted would result in higher taxes and a loss of sovereignty.

Tremblay, who got about 48 per cent of the popular vote, had campaigned as a defender of the communities being gobbled up in the amalgamation.

"We don't want the mega-city," said three women, one after the other, as they prepared to vote after church.

"People are realizing that, you know, maybe the things they've taken for granted in terms of municipal services might become compromised or taken away," said another woman.

Public opinion surveys had suggested that Tremblay was supported by anglophones and suburban dwellers. Bourque's base appeared to be francophones and Montrealers, something he noted during his concession speech.

"It's obvious that in the municipalities other than Montreal, we suffered defeats that really held us back," Bourque told hundreds of glum supporters as the final numbers showed him stuck at about 44 per cent unable to catch up to his rival.

In his victory speech, Tremblay made it clear he wants to heal divisions and represent the interests of everyone in the city, not just those who voted for him.

"When I decided to become mayor of this new city, it was to become mayor of all Montrealers, wherever they live on the island of Montreal, whatever their language, their origin, their political options," he said. "We now have to work together to make this city a success."

The Parti Québécois, which passed the merger legislation last year, has said it will cut costs and eliminate duplication of services. Bourque's loss is seen by some as a strong message of protest directed at the premier.

It's not the first time the plan to amalgamate municipalities has riled people at the polls. The Bloc Québécois thinks it lost three seats over the proposal during last fall's federal election, and the governing PQ has acknowledged that the mergers were a factor in its poor showing in byelections last month.