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Couillard supporters cheer Liberal majority

Couillard supporters cheer Liberal majorityQuebec Liberal party supporters applauds the result on election night Monday, April 7, 2014 at St-Felicien, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Clement Allard

SAINT-FELICIEN, Que. - Inclusiveness over division.

That's how supporters of rookie leader Philippe Couillard explained the Quebec Liberals' stunning majority victory over the Parti Quebecois on Monday, only 18 months removed from a bitter defeat in 2012.

The crowd gathered in Couillard's Roberval riding, 250 kilometres north of Quebec City, had much to cheer about as they watched the election results roll in at a local hotel.

"It's clear — people don't want a referendum," said Jean-Claude Plourde, a 54-year-old businessman who was on hand to savour the win. He expected victory, but nothing like this.

People are fed up with the PQ's divisive politics, he added.

"People are tired of bickering over things like the charter (of values) and language and sovereignty. French is important but it's even more important to be bilingual."

It was similar to the message repeated over and over by Couillard during the campaign. In his victory speech in St-Felicien on Monday, he was conciliatory and pledged to be a premier for all Quebecers.

"We should all focus on what brings us together," Couillard said in English.

The Liberals won 70 of the province's 125 seats and garnered about 41 per cent of the popular support, compared with 31 per cent in 2012.

It was an election result few could have predicted a month ago.

When the PQ called the election, it was riding high in the polls, prompting many political analysts to predict the sovereigntist party would come out on top — perhaps even with a majority of its own.

Couillard also won comfortably in his own riding in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region with nearly 60 per cent of the vote — no small feat, considering the PQ incumbent Denis Trottier had held the seat since 2007.

But the Liberal leader made inroads by framing the vote as a choice between his party's priorities of health care and economic growth on one hand, and the threat of another referendum under the PQ on the other.

He hammered away relentlessly at PQ Leader Pauline Marois for her murky position on if and when she would call another sovereignty vote.

He also took a strong stance on bilingualism during the campaign — a thorny issue in Quebec, given the importance the province places on protecting the French language.

And he was critical of the PQ's proposed charter, a plan that would have banned public employees from wearing religious headgear.

Monday's win came quickly. Couillard's supporters were still trickling into the hotel conference centre that was serving as party headquarters when news broke that the Liberals would be forming a government. Word of a majority followed soon after.

Throughout the campaign, Couillard himself had to confront attacks from all sides as his rivals raised questions of ethics and corruption, but nothing seemed to stick.

A former minister under Jean Charest, Couillard represents a departure from his old boss in both style and substance.

Unlike his fiery Liberal predecessor, he's known for a calm, intellectual approach to problem-solving. And during the campaign, he emerged as a passionate defender of Canadian federalism, at times going even further than Charest as he made the case for national unity.

Louise Veillette, another Couillard supporter, said she sensed the Liberal leader began to connect with voters about a week into the campaign.

"He's smart and he knows his files from A to Z," said Veillette, 75. "We're very proud of him."

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