For the third time in as many decades, a sovereigntist sword of Damocles is hanging over Canada. But appearances can be deceiving. In this instance, the sword is essentially a prop.
Quebec split three ways on Tuesday, grudgingly handing Pauline Marois and the Parti Québécois a ticket back to power after a decade-long spell in opposition.
But hers is the most conditional governing mandate ever earned by a PQ premier-elect. She won with only a third of all votes casts and she finished the evening a handful of seats short of a governing majority.
And while she can count on the qualified support of two MNAs elected under the banners of Québec Solidaire, that would still leave sovereigntists short of a majority in the National Assembly.
Quebec's ardent secessionists had hoped the vote would be the first step on the last stretch of the road to sovereignty. Instead, it has turned out to be the first day of the next Quebec election campaign.
Liberal expectations the festering conflict over a hike in tuition fees would be a winning condition for the incumbent did not pan out. In the end, a student movement energized by a spring of confrontation with Jean Charest's Liberal government helped tip the balance in favour of the PQ.
The student movement can probably claim bragging rights for the biggest casualty of Tuesday's vote.
Charest's Sherbrooke riding -- which he lost to the PQ -- boasts one of the highest proportion of post-secondary students of all Quebec ridings.
Running for the PQ, Léo Bureau-Blouin, who headed one of the three students groups who went head to head with the premier last spring, even beat junior finance minister Alain Paquet for the suburban seat of Laval-des-Rapides.
The Liberals lost their government on Tuesday, but they were spared the humiliation of falling to third place in the National Assembly. The Coalition Avenir Québec fell short of the ambitious goals it had set for itself for its first-ever campaign. It won fewer than half the seats of the second-place Liberals. But leader Franßois Legault beat the pre-campaign predictions by winning a seat. And his party was competitive in more ridings than anyone expected only a month ago.
If anything, this election served notice to Quebec's two older parties that the time when they could expect to routinely take turns in power is behind them. If he plays his cards right, there is no reason why Legault could not make the leap from third to first place in the next campaign.
How long this government will endure is an open question. There has been no hint of a possible alliance between the Liberals and the CAQ to keep the PQ out of power and insiders described that scenario as unlikely. For Marois' rank-and-file, the minority result is a bitter disappointment. The plan to use every tool of power to advance sovereignty will have to be dramatically scaled down.
But Marois herself may find some solace in the notion she will be able to use her minority status to keep her internal critics at bay and her most divisive initiatives on ice.
And then to be the first woman to become Quebec premier is the fulfilment of her lifelong dream. It is a quest Marois undertook when she ran for the PQ leadership for the first time in the mid-'80s.
There have been 10 federal and provincial votes since the last referendum and the sovereignist option on the ballot has never once been able to come close to the high-water mark (49 per cent) of the 1995 Yes vote.
With three sovereigntist parties on the ballot on Tuesday, the combined total was under 40 per cent.
For almost two decades, the PQ and its allies have refused to take no for an answer and they probably will not do so again this time.
But if Marois could not win more than a third of the vote against a tired Liberal government and a rookie CAQ party and against the backdrop of a tremendously unpopular federal government, she might be hard-pressed to do better in a rematch.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer for the Toronto Star.