Voting has taken place in Canada's French-speaking province of Quebec. Figures show that the left-leaning separatist Parti Quebecois has won, ending years of rule by Premier Jean Charest's liberals.
Although past Parti Quebecois (PQ)-led governments held referenda in which the population baulked at splitting away from Canada, the question may be re-examined further down the road.
However, that would need the PQ to win a majority of seats, something that projections showing the party winning only 58 of the 125 seats in the provincial legislature appear to cast into doubt.
In any case, current party leader Pauline Marois has said she would first focus on tackling Quebec's large debt and reforming its health care system.
Another independence referendum would follow later, said Marois, who would become Quebec's first female premier at the age of 63. In the event of a minority government, other parties would be able to block such a plebiscite.
Charest is only the second Quebec premier since the 1950s to have served three terms but in recent months faced vocal student protests over tuition fee increases as well as questions over a construction-industry corruption scandal.
A tough law to counter the students protests was implemented by his Liberals in May. The legislation was denounced as dictatorial by lawyers and trade unions. Marois has vowed to scrap the hike in student fees
New party in the running
The third main contestant is the newly created Coalition for the Future of Quebec (CAQ) which wants an end to decades-old feuds between federalists and separatists. A recent survey by the pollster Leger put the CAQ in second place on 28 percent, with the PQ leading on 33 percent. Charest's ruling Liberals trailed on 27 percent.
Charest had said a renewed push for provincial independence would create economic uncertainty.
Nearly six million eligible voters are entitled to choose 125 lawmakers in Quebec's provincial legislature.
Marois has said if her party wins she will seek a quick meeting with Canada's federal premier Stephen Harper to press his Liberal government to allow Quebec more regional control over immigration and unemployment insurance. Harper has often railed against Quebec separatists.
The newly-formed CAQ says it would freeze all talk of a referendum for a decade and focus on the economy.
Current surveys indicate that barely one-third of Quebec voters currently support secession. Quebec has twice rejected independence in 1980 and 1995, although the last time this was only by a relatively narrow margin.
ipj/rc (Reuters, AFP)