For seven long months, Quebec students waged a valiant battle on the streets against the Liberal government’s tuition hikes and undemocratic laws. Former premier Jean Charest called the election as a referendum on who runs society — was it the students and the “street”, or was it the government and the so-called “silent majority”? The results of this election show a complete rejection of the Liberal agenda and in many ways, represents a real victory for the student movement.
The Quebec election witnessed the humiliating defeat of premier Jean Charest, who even lost his own seat, prompting his resignation after 28 years of political life. The ruling Liberals were reduced to just over 31% of the popular vote, which constitutes their worst showing in almost 40 years. The Parti Québécois, whose share of the popular vote was only 0.7% higher than that of the Liberals, will now form a weak minority government. The first order of business for the new PQ government is to cancel the hated tuition increase by ministerial decree, and move to abolish the anti-democratic Law 12 (formerly known as Bill 78), which the Liberals had implemented in order to crush the student movement. This is a huge victory for the students and is a result of the mass movement that has shaken the province for the past several months.
It must be said that to a certain degree, a significant reason for the Parti Québécois’ victory was its attempts to galvanize the anti-Charest/pro-student vote in their favour. Just days before the election, the PQ took out full-page advertisements which appeared in most major newspapers, claiming that a PQ majority government would abolish the tuition increases, cancel Law 12, as well as cancel the $400-per-family healthcare tax implemented by the Charest Liberals. The fact that the PQ defeated Charest in his home riding of Sherbrooke, in what is one of the most densely student populated ridings in Quebec, also shows the effects of their channelling the movement into PQ votes. The PQ was further able to capitalize from the student movement by recruiting ex-student leader Léo Bureau-Blouin to run for them, and who handily won his seat.
However, despite their apparent support of the Quebec student movement, the capitalist PQ cannot be trusted to have the interests of students, or workers, at the top of their agenda. It is important that we emphasize that the cancelling of the tuition increase is not a gift from newly-elected PQ premier Pauline Marois, but a product of the movement. If it had not been for the magnificent movement of the students, the PQ would not have hesitated in supporting the increase in education tuition, just like the Liberals. Furthermore, we must also emphasize that the tuition increase has only been cancelled for the coming year; it is very likely that the students may have a sharp battle with the PQ next year, just as it did with the Liberals this past spring and summer.
The PQ’s minority government is also a weak one; it is in a tough place and will surely be a government in crisis. Already, Quebec’s bourgeoisie is making itself heard and pointing out to Marois and the PQ that the new government must put their interests ahead of those of the students and workers. As quoted in the Globe and Mail, Yves-Thomas Dorval, the head of the Conseil du Patronat (the province’s influential business lobby), said, “The business community needs to re-assured right now. There has been talk in some quarters of — not stopping — but slowing down investments in the event of a PQ win.”
The bosses’ message to the PQ is very clear — “Be careful what you do, or we’ll sabotage the economy.” With the current dismal state of the economy it is no joke to say that this government will attack us as hard as the Liberals. We must be prepared for this.
A missed opportunity for Quebec Solidaire?
The mood at the Quebec Solidaire victory party was upbeat and positive. With a reported 2,000 party activists crammed into the Olympia in downtown Montreal, party members were elated at the visible swelling of the ranks by thousands of youth, who had flooded into the party as a result of the student movement. It was announced that party membership had grown to over 13,000, up from just 7,000 at the start of the student strike. There were big hopes that the party would pick up a handful of seats and hold the balance of power with a PQ minority.
Early on in the evening, it was declared that both QS leaders, Amir Khadir and Françoise David, had been elected in their respective ridings. This was greeted with great cheers; attendees eagerly waited for results from other ridings where QS was hoping to break through. Results showing that Jean Charest was losing his seat in Sherbrooke were equally greeted with cheers of the popular slogan from the student movement, “Charest dehors! On te trouver une job dans le nord!” (“Charest out! We will find you a job in the north!”) As the night wore on and results poured in, the mood dampened somewhat as it became clear that the Liberals were polling higher than expected and QS would not win any more seats.
It is important to note that while the Liberals have been defeated, we have not seen major confidence placed in any one of the mainstream capitalist parties. Although the voter turnout was up to 75%, up from 57% during the 2008 election, neither the PQ nor the Liberals benefited much from this increased turnout. As mentioned earlier, the PQ’s share of the popular vote was less than one percentage point higher than the Liberals, and they only managed to win four more seats than the Liberals. Indeed, this is much less a victory for the PQ as a defeat of the Liberals.
With the lack of a clear alternative, most voters were not voting “for” any one party, but mainly voting “against” the Liberals or the PQ. The main beneficiaries of this election were the right-populist Coalition pour l’Avenir du Québec (CAQ), who captured just over 27% of the popular vote but only won 19 seats. Although they more than doubled the number of votes from their previous incarnation as the ADQ, they still failed to climb to the same heights previously enjoyed by the ADQ in 2006. CAQ leader François Legault barely won his own seat. But, the CAQ did attract attention, particularly as they appeared to be a new party and one that did not focus as much on the old debate around sovereignty vs. federalism.
In terms of Quebec Solidaire, the party scored a major victory by doubling its vote share to 6% of the popular vote, and they captured another seat on the island of Montreal. In the two ridings that they won, both of their candidates captured a strong majority. With these small, but significant, gains, QS is set to play a larger (and more visible) role in Quebec politics — helping to build the profile of the party amongst Quebec workers.
But, it does need to be pointed out that QS’ final result from the election was a bit lower than what most polls had pointed to during the campaign, which begs the question, “With such favourable conditions, was QS able to fully capitalize on the situation?” In many respects, QS was the “party of the student movement”, and stood for the gradual elimination of all tuition fees in Quebec. It is the only party in Quebec that stands against capitalist austerity. Its co-leader, Amir Khadir, was very visible during the student strike, even getting rounded up and arrested by the police.
Despite the gains made by QS, they could have been greater, particularly on the island of Montreal, where they could have weakened the Liberals further. As the election was announced, polls repeatedly showed that the majority in Montreal were opposed to the Liberal government and on the side of the student movement. Yet, on election night, the Liberals ended up sweeping most of Montreal. Certainly, the Liberals were bolstered by the hysteria whipped up by the bourgeois anglophone media, which warned of a virtual pogrom against anglophones if the PQ were elected into government. But, we also need to be honest that the leadership of QS did not do enough to present a clear alternative for Quebeckers to vote for. As the election began, QS made “free education” one of the central planks of their platform, but made almost no mention of it during the televised leaders’ debate. There was little talk during the campaign of opposing capitalist austerity or what the party would do for the province’s workers. In her victory speech, Françoise David mentioned that the party stood for “ecology, feminism, and sovereignty,” but again made no mention of the class question. Furthermore, David went out of her way to praise PQ leader Pauline Marois, in both her victory speech and during the televised debate. Finally, there was not even a mention of the student movement in her final speech during the victory party — the largest mass movement in Canadian history.
Unfortunately, this sort of approach did very little to differentiate QS from the PQ, and was not able to cut across the message of the anglo-chauvenist media. In this context, anglophones and allophones felt like they had no choice but to vote Liberal. Only a clear class demand that appealed to all workers — French and English, native and immigrant — could have galvanized the working-class vote and decisively defeated the hated Liberals in their last stronghold.
The unions were eerily silent during this election. There were some quiet token endorsements of the PQ that no one really knew of or took much notice of; but, by and large, the unions stood by and watched without saying or doing anything. This was one of the most important elections in Quebec history, and it was a huge error for the workers’ organizations to sit idly by on the question of defeating the hated Liberals and standing against their brutal handling of the student movement. Due to the crisis of the system, it is inevitable that the trade unions, representing over 40% of workers in the province, will come under attack, as well. Silence can only be interpreted as weakness, which in turn invites aggression. The unions should have actively intervened to support QS, but not stop there. Quebec desperately needs a labour party, a party of the workers with the unions at its heart. Before the next wave of attacks come, the unions need to enter into negotiations with QS, and other left forces like the student unions and the NDP, towards forming such a party to fight against austerity on the political front as well as the industrial. With the mobilizing power of the unions behind them, QS could have made a far more significant breakthrough than its present 6% share of the vote.
A period of crisis is opening up in Quebec society
This Quebec election will certainly go down as one of the most memorable in recent history, and is a reflection of the extreme turmoil that is occurring within Quebec society at the moment.
Halfway through the election campaign, it became clear that the Liberals could not shake the draconian undemocratic measures that they had used against the student movement, nor could they shake the stench from all of the ongoing accusations and investigations of corruption. The Quebec ruling class then turned to that old stand-by nugget, the national question, in an effort to distract voters. In a propaganda campaign that perhaps surpassed the vitriol displayed during the 1995 referendum campaign, the anglophone corporate media whipped up a frenzy around the supposed dangers posed by a PQ government. They warned anglophones and allophones that their very democratic rights were at stake if Marois was elected. They warned voters that a PQ government would immediately launch another referendum that would force businesses and people to flee Quebec. Going by the media’s accounts, a PQ victory would certainly bring about the four horsemen of the apocalypse!
On the other hand, the PQ, too, was happy to play up the national divide. Pauline Marois made a series of announcements on the campaign trail, playing up the divisions in Quebec society. These included restricting the ability of people to run for public office unless if they were fluent in French, or banning “overt” religious symbols (mainly non-Christian) from public life. Bureaucratic restrictions on the right to run for office are unacceptable in any democratic society and the state enforcement of these provisions can only have reactionary effects on minority populations. Whether the electorate votes for a candidate that speaks French, English, Farsi, Mandarin, or Cree is the choice of the electorate themselves, and no bureaucrat should have any role in deciding eligibility.
Immediately following the election, it is very obvious that acute passion abounds on both sides of the national question. This culminated in the attempted assassination of Pauline Marois at her own victory celebration in downtown Montreal by a crazed gunman.
All of these acute sensitivities have been heightened in the recent period by the crisis of capitalism and the crisis of the regime in Quebec, and are a reflection of the period of turmoil that we are in. The masses are desperately looking for a way out of this impasse where their living standards, their jobs, and their rights are all at stake. None of the main bourgeois parties — the PQ, the Liberals, or the CAQ — have a ready solution to the crisis in Quebec society. Anybody that says something a bit different than the usual humdrum is immediately going to gain an ear from the masses. We have already seen this in last year’s “Orange Surge” from the NDP, and earlier this year with the mass support of the Quebec students’ strike. It has now manifested itself in this heightened maelstrom between anglophones, allophones, and francophones.
What this shows is that there is a great opportunity that can be seized by Quebec Solidaire, if it can put forward a clear direction out of the capitalist crisis. With the gains made in this election, QS could set itself to gain significantly in the next election (very much like the NDP did federally in 2011) — an election that may come sooner than later given the PQ’s weak minority status.
The significance of the elections, and the way forward
What these elections show is that first and foremost, Charest was wrong and the students were right. There can be no doubt that with the Liberals weakened and Jean Charest even losing his seat in the National Assembly, that the election marks an important victory for the students’ hard struggle. Quebec Solidaire have doubled their share of the popular vote, doubled their seats in the National Assembly, and nearly doubled their membership, which obviously means that their position is strengthened. The movement has forced its will upon the government and the tuition increase has been cancelled — for now. We must move forward strengthened with these gains in mind and know that they are the product of our struggle.
The students must be prepared to mobilize once again to stop the attacks by the PQ government that are sure to come. Also, with the right-wing CAQ holding the balance of power, leader François Legault is stating, “Of course we’ll collaborate if she [Marois] accepts some changes.” Legault insists that he will not budge on the tuition increase, and that he wants to work together to install urgent measures to “ensure competivity” of Quebec business. We know that this is the dialogue of the “lucides”, the naked aims of the Quebec capitalists who understand the severity of the economic crisis and want to move fast and hard to eliminate anything in the way of profitability. Considering the PQ’s previous track record of legislating striking workers back-to-work, and of supporting tuition increases, it is certain that cuts are to come now that Marois and Co. are in power.
This means that the working class, as well as students, will be under threat in the coming period. While the election results mark a temporary and symbolic victory for the movement against austerity, the crisis of the system dictates that any party that does not fight capitalism will be forced to do the bidding of the capitalists. Workers and youth desperately need a mass party that will fight capitalist austerity and institute a socialist platform. The unions, QS, and the NDP, can play a key role in the formation of this mass workers party. It is vital that discussions begin now to unite all the forces of the working class and the youth to stop the next wave of attacks and defeat the hated parties of big business.