Quebec once again finds itself embroiled in another circus — an electoral circus. Furthermore, these elections may not seem so different from previous ones. As usual, Quebecers must patiently wait thirty days while the major political parties — financed in inappropriate ways — bombard them with slogans and senseless advertising. “For Quebec”, “It’s our choice”, “Enough! Things have to change”, “We can do better for Quebec”, “Arise”, etc. — these are slogans that may sound good but may also seem strange to the people they are trying desperately to win over.
However, these elections are unlike others in the past because they are taking place in the midst of the largest student, union, and popular struggle in the history of Quebec. In fact, over the past four months, we have witnessed the four largest demonstrations in the history of Quebec, and perhaps in the history of Canada. The tuition hike has thus become a central issue in the current electoral campaign. The mass media, controlled by wealthy Quebecers, finances the polls, pays the editorialists, and sends out false messages in order to make us believe that what is happening in the streets is insignificant, that the population does not support this movement, and that it is nothing but a minority of violent anarchist students that are manipulating the majority of well-behaved students. The defeat of the Liberal Party would be a victory for the students.
All the political actors have taken their place within this chaotic landscape. Charest acts like the father figure, trying to restore order in his little province. Marois on the one hand, according to herself, is apparently a better listener to popular demands while on the other hand, she refuses completely to give in to “violent demands” on the streets. With regard to Legault, he claims to want to restore financial order and tighten the belts of our biggest taxpayers. In short, all parties seek the best political line that is often visible in the so-called scientific polls. One thing is certain — the three parties vying for power understand that the current national and worldwide economic situation will force them into introducing cuts to social services and taking measures to the detriment of the majority of the population. These elections are particularly important within the current context of social conflict — but how can we see clearly with all these false images, empty phrases, and false promises?
The economic situation
The electoral platforms and promises of the political parties are based on their ability to carry them out. Whether a left-wing party offering free education, construction of subsidized homes etc., or a right-wing party that wants to privatize Hydro-Quebec and introduce a healthcare tax as well as a reduction in public sector employees — these parties must be able to explain their choices. In doing so, they must legitimize the need for such programs in terms of the national economic situation, which itself is conditioned by the world economic situation. It is therefore important to understand how the world economy functions.
The economy in Quebec and Canada is highly dependent on the export of raw resources and products to the United States. Thus, the vitality of the U.S. economy greatly influences ours. As we already know, our neighbours to the south are facing the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, a situation which has earned current president of the United States the sad title of “the food-stamp president”. Never before have so many Americans had to use food stamps to get food at food banks as they have under Obama’s presidency. The rate of GDP growth and production rates struggle to remain positive, which has caused a decrease in Canadian exports to the US — with the only exception being products related to the fossil fuel industry. In terms of Europe, the situation is hardly any better. Germany, the IMF, and the World Bank have exhausted themselves with economic bailouts of countries such as Greece, Spain, Italy, and so on. The world economy is in grave danger.
Following the crisis of 2008, most governments were forced to finance the big companies and banks who were on the verge of bankruptcy. This has only increased debt levels in each of these countries. The response of these governments and their financial advisers, in an attempt to rid themselves of these immense debts, has been cuts to social services.
Austerity is also the order of the day in this country. It is no coincidence that we have seen an eruption of protests everywhere: mass student movements exploding in Quebec and in Chile; the union movements, such as the example of the striking miners in Spain or the general strikes in Greece; or political movements contesting rigged elections in Russia and Mexico.
After 2008, left-wing governments, just like right-wing governments, all took the road of austerity. In Quebec, as in the rest of Canada, we have witnessed our governments choosing the same road. It was not only for political reasons that the Conservatives legislated the unions back-to-work at Canada Post and Air Canada, just as it was not simply for political reasons that the Liberal Party of Quebec imposed increased service fees for nearly all social services. This is not simply a result of their “neoliberal” ideology, but is caused by the economic situation they face, the root cause of which is the world economic crisis. If this is not the case, how can we explain the fact that the Socialist parties in Greece and Spain, and now in France, are pursuing the same agenda with cuts to state social services.
In terms of the Quebec elections, the three parties vying for power know that if they do not wish to enter into conflict with capital, they must continue in the same economic vein as Jean Charest and his team of businessmen and women.
A historical movement
In this economic context, we can now see that the population will not easily accept this lowering of their standard of living, and the movement around the student strike is the first symptom of this. After more than seven months of massive mobilizations and fierce struggle, the students have not been successful. The government has exhausted all its tactics in an attempt to break the student movement which it at first ignored, then clubbed, then threw an injunction, and finally a special law at. The movement did not simply capitulate and its popular support grew. For the government, the only thing that remains is the elections in order to prove that its decision reflects that of the entire population of Quebec. The tuition hike has become one of the central issues in the 2012 electoral campaign.
Before the elections were called, the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiant (CLASSE - Broad Coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity) presented a manifesto clearly explaining that the way forward for the student movement is direct democracy and not representative democracy, a clear break with parliamentarism. Certainly, CLASSE seems to want to continue the struggle despite the elections, which is the best position to take in the face of the elections. As usual, CLASSE explains that it is up to its members to decide who to vote for, yet its leaders are tending towards abstention.
It is true that the parties have not taken a serious position with regards to the student conflict. Pauline Marois of the Parti Quebecois wants a tuition increase, but we were still able to see the red square pinned on her jacket as she characterized the movement as violent. Even the Quebec Solidaire leadership called those who broke windows criminals, meanwhile calling for civil disobedience the following day.
The price paid for the opportunism of the left parties and the union leaders is the disillusionment of the people with regard to politics. There is a wonder by some student activists whether a Liberal defeat, and an increase in Quebec Solidaire’s representation in the National Assembly, would be a victory for the movement after seven months of fierce struggle. Yes! QS is the only party promising to abolish the increase in tuition and begin a period of reducing tuition fees — which is far from the 82% increase proposed by the Liberals. Moreover, we must remember that the PQ still hopes to raise tuition, even after public forums were held. It is worth mentioning that regardless of the party elected to the Assembly, the student movement must not simply accept promises and must be ready to continue the struggle if the hike is maintained and the government has not decided to move towards free education.
Regarding the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ - Québec Federation of University Students) and the Féderation étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ - Quebec Federation of College Students), they do not seem to favour a continuation of the strike. Éliane Laberge, the president of the FECQ, has publicly stated that it would not be in the interests of its members to remain on strike. Furthermore, the former president of the college students’ union, and now a candidate for the Parti Québécois, Léo Bureau-Blouin, has expressed a desire for a truce on the part of the student movement. For its part, the FEUQ has focused on student participation in the elections and wants to see the protest movement channeled into the ballot box and wants the Liberals to suffer an utter defeated.
In short, the party closest to the student movement is Québec Solidaire. However, it seems to be torn between a certain conformism in its aspiration for power, and positions that will be seen favourably on the streets. If the party really wants to be taken seriously by the student movement and other protest movements to come, it must indicate clearly that it is ready to get rid of the current economic system which is increasingly suffocating the people. The unions should support QS and mobilize alongside it, because after the students it will be the turn of the workers to suffer new cuts and attacks. Despite the offer of a moratorium and public forums, the Parti Québécois does not represent an alternative for the movement, because fundamentally, the party will favour the advice of bankers at the expense of those taking to the streets.
Québec Solidaire — a real alternative?
In these times of economic crisis, an abyss has opened around the world between the parties willing to listen to the market and those willing to listen to the people. This polarization is clearly visible in countries where the crisis is more advanced. There is no longer any middle ground. In France, François Hollande must choose between the interests of French workers and those of the bosses. Quebec is no exception to this dichotomy. In order for Québec Solidaire to become a genuine alternative, it must first be organically linked with those it yearns to represent — the unions and community groups. It is worth mentioning that an alliance would genuinely benefit Québec Solidaire if the workers reclaimed their organizations of struggle. The unions must again genuinely represent their members and must adopt a perspective of militant unionism. An alliance between the social and political movements would allow for the genuine representation of the interests of those engaged in economic and social struggle on a daily basis. Secondly, Québec Solidaire must be prepared to enter into direct conflict with capital. Several progressive measures are stated in the party’s program, such as increasing capital tax, the socialization of primary resources, free education, free public transit, etc. All of these measures will lead to a huge protest by the ruling class.
In today’s society, rejecting austerity can lead to the threshold of revolution — building steps towards the end of capitalism. This struggle against the ruling class cannot simply be led from Parliament. The organizations that represent the people must mobilize in order to put pressure on the bosses in the workplace and in society in general. Austerity cannot be fought without being prepared to go on strike, to protest and mobilize. This should be clear, otherwise future left governments will be forced to act like others before them — such as introducing regressive measures as was the case in Ontario following the election of the NDP in the 1990s.
To conclude, in this election, the only alternative for the student movement is to vote for Québec Solidaire. If the Liberals are reelected, the struggle against the tuition increase will become increasingly difficult, which is why it is essential that we understand the importance of these elections. One of the first tasks for the movement should be to mobilize against the Liberals, but having said that, the defeat of the Liberal Party is no real guarantee of victory. Students must continue to mobilize and be ready to struggle if their demands are not heard. Should the PQ be elected, this struggle would only be delayed by a few months or even weeks. Québec Solidaire is the best alternative, which is why the International Marxist Tendency encourages workers and students to vote for Québec Solidaire. However, its electoral victory is not an end in and of itself. The student movement, like the other union and social movements, must put pressure on Québec Solidaire in order that it carries out and even goes beyond the promises made in its program.
This article was first published on 19 August 2012 on our French-language sister website, La Riposte.