Quebec: Elections see shake-up of political landscape

Big losses for ruling Liberals and pro-separatist Parti Québécois

This spring’s general election in Quebec resulted in a major shake up of the political landscape with the return of the province’s first hung parliament since the 19th century. Both the ruling federalist, centre-right Quebec Liberal Party and the opposition, sovereigntist Parti Québécois suffering serious losses due to the emergence of the right wing populist Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ). While Jean Charest’s Liberals won 48 seats and 33% of the vote, enough to be re-elected as a minority government, the major surprise of the election was the emergence of the right-wing populist Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ) led by Mario Dumont. The ADQ increased it’s representation in the Quebec National Assembly eight-fold, winning 41 seats (with 30% of the vote). The Parti Québécois (PQ) was relegated to third place, with 36 seats (28% of the vote), the pro-sovereignty party’s lowest level of support since it first contested elections in 1970.

Significantly, a new left wing party, Québec solidaire, contested its first election and came close to winning in two electoral districts. In both cases, it came in second place, winning close to 30% of the vote. The party won the endorsement of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) trade union in Montreal and individual candidates won the support of other trade unions and union leaders. Overall, Québec solidaire received 3.75% of the vote.

For over thirty years, Quebec politics was dominated by two parties, the Liberal Party of Quebec, which supports Canadian federalism (a unitary Canadian state), and the pro-Quebec sovereignty (separatist) Parti Québécois. The PQ formed governments from 1976 to 1985 and again from 1994 to 2003. Two referendums on independence were held during these years. In 1980, the option of ‘sovereignty association’ got the support of 40% of Quebecers. In 1995, 49.42%, including a majority of French-speakers, voted yes to sovereignty.

Sovereignty movement broken?

Federalists and the English-Canadian media claim the election broke the back of the sovereignty movement and marks the re-emergence of “normal” politics in Quebec. However, voters had little to choose between the three major parties, all of which are now ‘right of centre’ and support neo-liberal economic policies, to various degrees. The PQ used to describe itself as social democratic and got support from trade unions. In fact, the PQ was always an uneasy coalition of left wing and right wing nationalists, with the right gaining dominance under Lucien Bouchard (a former federal Tory cabinet minister who defected to the sovereignty movement in 1990) and particularly under its current leader, Andre Boisclair, who sought to shed the party’s association with labour and emphasized debt reduction in his platform.

The Liberals also moved further to the right under Premier Jean Charest, another former federal Tory cabinet minister who briefly led the federal Conservatives in the mid-1990s before being head-hunted by the provincial Liberal Party. The ADQ is the most right wing of the parties. Its leader, Mario Dumont, is compared to Pym Fortuyn, the late Dutch right wing populist, or even Le Pen, leader of the French Front Nationale, because of Dumont’s willingness to exploit xenophobic attitudes towards immigrants, particularly Muslims.

The election result, however, does not indicate the collapse of the sovereignty (separatist) movement but its fracturing. During the election campaign, polls indicated sovereignty had the support of 44% of Quebecers, almost twice the level of support of the PQ. The Parti Québécois’ decline is not due to a softening of support for an independent state of Quebec but of the PQ’s complete abandonment of any pretence of basing itself on the working class. When it was formed in 1968, the PQ was a social democratic party with a strong affinity with the labour movement. After first winning power in 1976, the PQ instituted significant social reforms, such as a pro-worker labour code, banning corporate donations to political parties, improving social services and banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, decades ahead of the rest of Canada.

Militant traditions

The modern, left nationalist movement emerged in the 1960s, inspired by national liberation movements in Algeria and Latin America. The “Quiet Revolution” in Quebec saw the Liberals, led by Jean Lesage, defeated by the Union Nationale and government reforms, such as the nationalization of the energy industry. The radicalisation of society resulted in a split in the Liberal Party and the emergence of the Parti Québécois, under Rene Levesque, a former Liberal cabinet minister responsible for creating Hydro Quebec, the nationalised energy industry. Levesque united left wing sovereigntists with right wing nationalists, under a common banner seeking an independent Quebec. The PQ retained a largely social democratic character in its first decade of office. However, with the flight of much of Quebec’s English-speaking middle class to Toronto, and laws making French the language of business in Quebec, a French-speaking capitalist class grew. The PQ governments exchanged the domination of French Canadians by an English ruling class for the domination of French Canadian workers by bosses who spoke the same language as the workers. The PQ became the representative of the francophone business class in Quebec.

The second PQ government, which came to power in 1993, was notably cooler towards workers. Premier Jacques Parizeau proclaimed in one interview that he was “proud to be a bourgeois.” Under his successors, Lucien Bouchard, and particularly under Boisclair, the PQ moved further into the embrace of the Quebecois capitalists and away from workers. Prior to the recent election, Boisclair stated, “The time when talks between the PQ and the unions ended in wine and dine is over!”

Working class activists, disgusted with the PQ’s move to the right, abandoned the party and created new political formations, which coalesced, in early 2006, with the creation of Québec solidaire. The new party brings together anti-globalization activists, socialists, including the Parti communiste du Québec, social-democrats, feminists and various left-wing currents.

Despite the absence of a mass workers’ party, Quebec was able to retain the most extensive social welfare system in Canada. This is largely because it is the province with the largest and most militant labour movement, as well as the most militant student and women’s movements. Quebec has the lowest post-secondary tuition fees in Canada, the most comprehensive labour law, including a “no scab” rule, and the only comprehensive system of public child care

The Jean Charest-led Liberal government, which came to power in Quebec, in 2003, tried to attack workers and students in its first term by proposing to curtail the public sector (particularly health care), contract out public services and raise tuition fees. But these plans were resisted by mass resistance, such as a province-wide walkout, a six week student strike against tuition increases, and a massive public sector strike, in 2005. Charest become the most unpopular Quebec premier in decades and the Liberal government was primed to be defeated after a single term in office. However, the PQ was unable to present itself as an alternative to Charest’s neo-liberalism, due to its own deepening allegiance with the capitalist class.

Right wing populism

The ADQ was able to partially fill the vacuum. Party leader Dumont’s base is in rural Quebec and amongst the growing, conservative class of francophone entrepreneurs and professionals in the suburbs of Montreal and Quebec City. As a new party with a populist orientation, it also attracts support from nationalist (and some federalist) voters, who want change but don’t know what sort of change they want. The ADQ also benefits from a protest vote against the “old line” parties.

The ADQ is not a genuine radical alternative. It does not offer an independent state with a healthy welfare state, but the “modernisation of the Quebec state,” with cuts and the privatisation of public services and a proposal that the federal state cede jurisdiction to Quebec in 22 sectors. Dumont, describes himself as neither a federalist nor a sovereigntist but as an “autonomist”. The ADQ’s most ‘radical’ policy is the creation of a two-tier, privatised health care system. The ADQ also represents a re-emergence of ethnic nationalism and xenophobia. It whipped up a debate on “reasonable accommodation” of minorities. During the election campaign, ADQ leader Dumon claimed that allowing Muslims to have prayer rooms in public schools or Muslim girls to wear hijabs, while playing in soccer tournaments, is a threat to the “Quebecois identity”. The PQ, with its abandonment of the welfare state, can put forward no positive vision. Rather than reject the ADQ’s xenophobic pronouncements, the PQ and Liberals rushed to occupy the same ground.

The failure of the ruling class to solve the national question in Quebec complicates the situation facing the working class. Socialists support the right to self determination for Quebec, up to and including independence. We also oppose right wing nationalism and bigotry. When the ‘Yes’ side lost the 1994 ‘separatist’ referendum, Jacques Parizeau, former PQ leader, in a xenophobic outburst, blamed “money and the ethnic vote.” The solution for Quebeckers is not to turn their backs on immigrant workers, with a retreat into ethnic nationalism and xenophobia, but to unite French, English and immigrant workers in a movement that fights capitalist oppression, defends the gains of the working class, and mobilises in the streets, schools and workplaces for an end to poverty, decent housing and jobs for all, through the creation of an independent socialist Quebec and a voluntary socialist federation of the Americas.

Impressive vote for new left party

Many workers looking for an alternative to the PQ, Liberals and ADQ turned to Quebec solidaire, which was able to get impressive vote for a new party but lacked the resources to fully realize Solidaire’s potential. Impressively for a new party, Quebec solidaire was able to get on the ballot in 123 of Quebec’s 125 electoral districts. More than half of its candidates were women and a number of candidates came from immigrant backgrounds, most notably Amir Khadir, who is one of the party’s co-leader and the candidate who came closest to winning with 29% of the vote in a four way contest. The party’s other co-leader, Francoise David, also came a close second in her contest, with 26%. As well as winning the support of some sectors of the union movement, Solidaire earned praise from the leader of the Assembly of First Nations in Quebec, who praised the party as the only one addressing the concerns of indigenous people. The party ran a diverse slate of activists in the labour, social, feminist and student movements and, in the course of the campaign, the party was able to recruit 1,000 people and grow to over 6,500 members.

The party’s weakness is its political manifesto. While it is anti-big business and called for progressive policies, such as a $10 minimum wage, the abolition of university tuition, the construction of 4,000 social housing units, a nationalized system of Pharmacare, the investment of over $1 billion in health care; the nationalization of wind power, and major investment in public transit, the Solidaire programme is not explicitly socialist and fails to call for bringing the economy under public, democratic control.

While the PQ attempted to soft-pedal independence and reassured big business by promising to retain a close relationship with Canadian capitalism, the QS explicitly supports sovereignty, with its call for a constituent assembly to draft a constitution for an independent Quebec state.

Two leading members of the Parti communiste du Quebec, André Parizeau and Francis Gagnon Bergman, were candidates for the QS. Socialist Alternative in Canada (CWI) supports the Parti communiste du Quebec call for Solidaire to adopt a socialist programme and its analysis that, through struggle and debate, the party will develop politically.

Dead-end of bourgeois nationalism

With the election of a right-wing National Assembly, and the surge of the neo-liberal, social conservative ADQ, struggle will re-emerge on the streets and in the work places. With bold socialist policies and tactics, the QS can successfully play a key role leading mass movements to defend workers and students. By proving to workers and youth Quebec solidaire is their party, the QS can grow in size and influence and make big gains in the next elections.

The Parti Quebecois is at an impasse. Bourgeois nationalism has taken it into a dead-end. The demagogic ADQ is not an alternative for workers but an anti-working class trap. Quebec needs a mass working class party that can fight both inside and outside the Quebec National Assembly and be a vehicle for the advent of an independent, socialist Quebec that fully respects the rights of minorities and aboriginal peoples.

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April 2007