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Canadian PM wins election but with minority government

Martin waves as he leaves a polling station after casting his vote Monday in Montreal.
• Election Watch:  Canada

(CNN) -- Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and his scandal-battered Liberal Party apparently bested their reunited Conservative opposition in Monday's federal election, but a strong showing by separatists in Quebec helped rob Martin of an outright majority.

CTV television was projecting that Liberals would win the largest share of seats but would fall short of capturing the 155 seats needed for a majority in the 308-seat House of Commons.

That could leave Canada with a minority government that would have to rely on support from the left-wing New Democrats or the Bloc Quebecois, which advocates independence for Quebec. The separatist BQ was set to sweep nearly three-fourths of the province's 75 seats for its best-ever showing, according to CTV projections.

Martin, trying to carry his party to its fourth straight general election victory, was facing a united conservative opposition for the first time since 1993. Last October, two competing conservative parties -- the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives -- voted to merge into the new Conservative Party, led by Stephen Harper.

The Conservatives increased their share of parliamentary seats in Monday's vote, but, despite pre-election polls pointing to a horse race, they were still running about 50 seats behind the Liberals, according to CTV projections.

Conservative co-chair Michael Fortier conceded the party, whose base of support is in the Western provinces, failed to meet expectations in vote-rich Ontario, where Harper had hoped to make a major breakthrough.

Amid intra-party squabbling, Martin took over as prime minister in December from the retiring Jean Chretien. After 11 years in power, Liberal popularity had ebbed in the face of what's become known in Canada as the "sponsorship scandal," in which millions of dollars in questionable government contracts were awarded to politically connected advertising firms.

Many of those firms were in Quebec, where the scandal had particularly sapped Liberal support and bolstered the BQ, which picked up nearly 20 seats.

"It's a great victory," said BQ leader Gilles Duceppe told enthusiastic supporters at an election night rally in Montreal. "The Bloc is the only team that Quebecers, men and women, trust to protect their interests in Ottawa."

During the campaign, Harper, who criticized Chretien for not joining the United States and Britain in the Iraq war, had hit the new prime minister hard on the issue of trust.

"The fundamental issue of this election has never changed. It's about accountability -- holding them accountable for the shameful misuse of our money," Harper said at his campaign finale Sunday night in his home province of Alberta.

Martin tried to rally voters by vowing to protect government social programs, particularly the country's universal health care system, which he said would be threatened by tax cuts advocated by the Conservatives.

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