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Vote isn't 'mandate' for Quebec self-rule: PM

MONTREAL -- Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned Thursday that the Quebec separatists' narrow election victory does not give them a “mandate” to seek independence for the mainly French-speaking province.

Observers do not expect the Parti Quebecois to move quickly to organize an independence referendum, but Quebec's new Premier-elect Pauline Marois told a victory rally Tuesday that “the future of Quebec is to be a sovereign country.”

“Anybody who is following this pretty carefully will see in the results that the people of Quebec voted for change,” Harper said at a conference organized in the western city of Vancouver by the Bloomberg news agency.

“At the same time, I think it was pretty clear they were denying any mandate for the separation of Quebec or the division of the country ... That's how the government of Quebec will be forced to interpret it one way or the other.”

Marois's victory came after allegations of corruption against leaders of the outgoing Liberal administration of Premier Jean Charest, which is federalist, and months of nightly student protests over a planned tuition hike.

The Parti Quebecois leader, who plans to form her cabinet within the next two weeks, earlier met with Charest to prepare the transition. The outgoing premier has resigned as head of the provincial Liberal party.

Turnout was strong, with nearly six million voters casting ballots for 125 lawmakers, and the separatists won 54 seats, to the Liberals' 50 and 19 to the middle-ground Coalition Avenir Quebec. A small leftist party won two seats.

Quebec twice rejected independence in 1980 and 1995, but federalists only narrowly won the last referendum.

Marois has said she will only hold a third referendum on independence if a win is assured, which is unlikely to be any time soon, given that barely one in three Quebecers currently supports secession.

“We will continue to be focused on the interests of the Canadian economy, on job creation obviously, the creation of quality jobs, long-term prosperity and economic growth,” Harper said he told Marois during a telephone call.

“It's our focus across the country. We are prepared to collaborate with any provincial government on those shared objectives.

“That's what I think the people of Quebec also want to see from their government,” he added.

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