Quebecers will go the polls next month with the Parti Quebecois chasing a majority government that could eventually march the province toward another independence referendum.
Premier Pauline Marois, first elected to a minority mandate 18 months ago, announced the April 7 vote Wednesday after meeting with her cabinet.
Flanked by PQ MNAs inside the national assembly, Marois made a statement to reporters that listed what she described as her government's accomplishments since defeating Jean Charest's Liberals in September 2012.
Recent polls have suggested her pro-independence party could capture a majority, thanks in large part to significant support from Quebec's ever-important francophone voters.
Marois' seven-minute speech was peppered with examples aimed at sending the message that her PQ government has created jobs and been a sound manager of the economy, an area long considered a party weakness.
"Today, we can say the results are there," she said, before crediting her government with creating 47,000 jobs in 2013.
"We have put lots of effort — lots of effort — into our economic policies to make Quebecers richer in all regions with quality jobs everywhere."
The statement, which she delivered before a meeting with Quebec's lieutenant-governor, made no direct mention of independence, sovereignty or a referendum. She refused to take questions from journalists before leaving.
In recent weeks, Opposition Leader Philippe Couillard has repeated the warning that a majority PQ government would open the door for Marois to call a referendum on Quebec independence.
"It's a certainty," Couillard, an outspoken defender of the Canadian federation, told reporters Wednesday when asked whether he thought a Marois majority would lead to a referendum.
"All the new (PQ) candidates (who) came forward in recent days said that their prime motivation was the idea of 'un pays' (a country)...
"They joined the PQ to have a referendum. They want to separate Quebec from Canada. Let's stop kidding ourselves here. Let's face reality."
Marois, however, has so far refused to commit herself to holding a referendum if she wins a majority, and has said such a vote must wait until the appropriate moment.
If elected to a majority, she has promised to consult Quebecers first on the merits of holding another vote on sovereignty.
Polls have suggested that support for independence has been around 40 per cent in Quebec, which voted against sovereignty in the 1980 and 1995 referendums.
Last month, PQ Environment Minister Yves-Francois Blanchet predicted the Marois government would hold a referendum in its first majority mandate because the party has called such votes in each of its past cycles in power.
Election fever had been building in recent weeks amid a flurry of spending announcements from the minority PQ government as well as the introduction of candidates for all political parties.
Marois argued Wednesday that her government had no choice but to pull the plug due to the opposition parties' stated intentions to defeat the PQ's budget, which was presented last month.
"Now it's up to you, Quebecers, to decide," she said. "You know my team, my team that is solid, that has proved itself."
The start of the 33-day campaign Wednesday also led to the suspension of the ongoing provincial corruption inquiry. The Charbonneau Commission will sit next week, as scheduled, but will then take a break until April 8.
The temporary shutdown will keep the public inquiry from examining potentially sensitive subjects, such as political party financing, during the campaign.
A statement from the Charbonneau inquiry said the hearings are politically neutral and that it would be inappropriate to continue them before the vote.