Quebec: General elections kick Liberals out

Quebec Solidaire’s breakthrough shows potential for the left

On 4 September, Quebec voters elected the Parti Québecois (PQ) to lead a minority government, with Pauline Marois as the first female prime minister in Quebec history. On the heels of the mass student strikes, PQ was always likely to win as it promised to scrap the hated “law 78” –an unprecedented set of repressive measures brought about by the outgoing Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ) government to confront the student strike- and freeze tuition fee hikes.

Pre-election polls had predicted a tight race between the PQ, the ruling PLQ and the ‘Coalition Avenir Québec’ (CAQ), a new center-right party formed by the merger of Action Démocratique du Québec and the forces around the anti-corruption figure, François Legault.

The surprise of the elections however was the strength of the PLQ, which won only 4 fewer seats than the PQ, and received 31.2% of the vote as compared to the PQ’s 31.9%. If undoubtedly, many working class voters and young people have used their vote to throw out of power the unpopular and corruption-tainted PLQ, which had run the province for the past 9 years, the failure of the PQ to provide a clear alternative road to the PLQ’s pro-business policies prevented a more decisive victory for this party.

Despite this, the hated outgoing Prime Minister, Jean Charest, the principal opponent of the student movement, lost his seat, forcing him to recognize openly the defeat of his party.

The CAQ received 27.1% of the vote, but only won 19 seats. This result was seen as a disappointment to the CAQ and its supporters who hoped to capitalize on the anti-corruption credentials. Its leader, François Legault, exposed PLQ Ministers awarding contracts to mafia-controlled firms in return for campaign contributions.

The small left party, Québec Solidaire (QS), was the only party in the elections which took up the demands of the student movement, including prominent demands for not just reversing tuition hikes, but for free higher education. QS gained an additional member of Quebec parliament going from one deputy to two, and doubled its share of total votes from 3.3% in 2008 to 6% this year. Due to its support among the student movement it made large gains, coming in second or third place in several districts. Significantly, the party has also doubled its membership in the last period, with now around 13,000 members in its ranks.

The PLQ, the traditional conservative party of Quebec, ran on its record of imposing austerity and refusing to give an inch in its struggle with the students over tuition hikes, presenting itself as the defender of “social peace” and against “the power of the street”.

The PQ, the main party of the Quebec sovereignty movement, made sympathetic overtures towards the student movement but were clear in their support for austerity and tuition fee hikes. The tacit support it got from the main trade union federations, as well as from the two most moderate students associations, has however enabled it to boost its supposed ‘leftish’ credentials in the eyes of part of the working class and student electorate. The party has however clearly embraced neo-liberalism, as was amply demonstrated during their last period in power, when many of the attacks on public services and on workers and youth that Charest’ continued, were initiated.

The CAQ, led by the businessman and ex-PQ leader Francois Legault, and openly hostile to the trade unions, had led its campaign with the slogan “It’s enough, we need change”, but is in line with the PLQ’s policies on every major question, for example declaring it would use the police to force students back to class if necessary.

These elections, marked by smaller political formations making significant electoral breakthroughs, show growing cracks within the two-party political system. This system has traditionally dominated Quebec politics since the 1970’s – with the two main pro-capitalist parties, the PQ and the PLQ, alternating in power. The erosion of support for these two parties, and the growth of support for QS in particular, reflect the rising openness for a left challenge to the present order of things.

Background of class struggle

These elections took place in the wake of the student strike movement which ended just before the elections as student associations voted one by one to return to classes. Fighting against tuition hikes and the commodification and privatization agenda of the ruling class, the strike began on 13 February and lasted through August, including demonstrations as large as 400,000.

Struggling also against the draconian “Law 78”, the student movement lost momentum over the summer, slowly losing steam while continuing nightly “casseroles” (demonstrations where people banged pots and pans). By the time the election was called, students and the larger working class had grown tired.

The right wing of the student movement, represented by the leadership of the Fédération Étudiante Collégiale du Québec (FECQ), argued within the movement for a “truce” and threw its support behind its traditional allies, the PQ. While unions (and student associations) are not legally allowed to officially endorse parties or candidates in Quebec, the movement raised the public profile of several spokespeople and their political endorsements were seen as the policy of the union.

CLASSE, the largest and most radical of the student associations, was split between an abstentionist trend, which argued that the solutions for the movement could not be found in elections and that they should be ignored, and supporters of QS who largely did not press the debate. As a result, the CLASSE leadership largely ignored the elections and simply called for the struggle to continue, as it crumbled beneath their feet.

On election night, while over one thousand young people packed into a theatre for the Québec Solidaire rally, two blocks away, barely 200 showed for an anti-election demonstration that never started on a rainy, humid night.

After the elections

Québec Solidaire has grown and is attracting many students and young people who looked for a way to continue the struggle of the spring and summer in the elections. This energy must not be allowed to be channeled only into the parliamentary speeches of leaders, but must be used to push Québec Solidaire towards campaigning on the street against austerity measures.

Quebec Solidaire campaigning in the streets for free education

The electoral success of this formation clearly expresses the shift to the left which has hit an important layer of young people in the course of the past months, and shows a hint of the potential for the building of a mass party arguing for a socialist alternative to the present crisis.

The momentum of QS’ success should be used as a springboard to start a militant, grassroots campaign within working class communities and towards the trade unions, in response to the ongoing bosses’ offensive, but also against the austerity attacks that will inevitably come under the PQ’s rule. Indeed, if for now the PQ has publicly announced its intention to abolish Law 78 and to freeze the rise of tuition fees, securing the sympathy of important layers of the student movement, there are very few doubts that the new government will come back on the offensive and ultimately continue the austerity policies of its predecessors.

That is why QS should also articulate demands for the trade unions to break with the PQ, which has clearly shown, though its previous governments (from 1976 to 1985 and from 1994 to 2003) that its policies are not in line with the interests of the ‘99%’.

The PLQ and CAQ together have more seats than the PQ and could theoretically form a coalition government. If moves are made in that direction, this would likely cause a new round of elections to be called in the spring, as such a coalition would be extremely unstable.

The elections were successful for the ruling class to put the nail in the coffin of this phase of the struggle against tuition increases.

The differing strategies and lack of open debate in the movement caused divisions in the movement that the PLQ’s maneuvering in negotiations in the spring and summer failed to do. The students have now returned to class and, due to “Law 78”, are compressing their entire spring semester into the month of September. The PQ has indicated it will repeal the repressive aspects of Law 78 and put a freeze on tuition hikes, but has promised to return to them.

If for now, the student movement has receded, giving a temporary release to the ruling class, these elections only represents the end of one chapter. A new generation has been emboldened and radicalized through the student mass movement, announcing a new period of more heightened class struggle in Quebec society.

The student strikes are a preview to the movements of the larger working class that will shake Quebec society in the months and years to come.

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September 2012