by Robbie Mahood
Coming on the heels of the mass mobilisations of Quebec’s ‘printemps erable’ (Maple Spring), the September 4 vote result is disappointing. The election of a minority Parti Quebecois (PQ) government brings to an end a nine year Liberal Party (PLQ) reign. Liberal leader Jean Charest went down to personal defeat in his Sherbrooke riding. Beyond that, there was little solace for partisans of working class politics. The federalist bourgeoisie expressed relief that the outcome was a lot less unfavourable to their interests than they feared.
The PQ could muster only 32% of the vote and 54 seats, against 31% of the vote and 50 seats for the Liberals. Pauline Marois, Quebec’s first woman premier, will lead a minority government hostage to the right wing Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) which captured 27% of the vote, but only 19 seats owing to the undemocratic first-past-the post electoral system. In a large number of ridings, the PQ won because the vote was divided by its Liberal and CAQ opponents. Conversely, in perhaps a dozen seats, the PQ lost by a margin equal to the combined totals of its two smaller rivals, Quebec Solidaire (QS) and Option Nationale (a pro-independence split-off from the PQ).
The PQ’s anemic victory can only deepen the crisis of this bourgeois nationalist party which has tried in vain to convince some section of the Quebec capitalist class to support independence, the dream of that bourgeois patriot, Jacques Parizeau, or even the much diluted ‘sovereignity association’ proposed by the revered Rene Levesque.
Under Marois, the PQ has distanced itself ever further from any concrete perspective for sovereignity, while affirming its fealty to the neo-liberal consensus. But this has not diminished the hostility or outright demonization of the party in the corporate media in Quebec, and especially in English-speaking Canada. The assassination attempt on Marois on election nights appears to be the work of a deranged individual. But it cannot be fully divorced from the atmosphere of fear and hatred that has been cultivated for years towards the national aspirations of the Quebecois, especially the goal of independence.
Jean Charest tried to parlay a backlash against the striking students into a victory at the polls, following the example of Charles deGaulle after the May 1968 uprising in France. But the student struggle was relegated to the background, studiously avoided during the election campaign by the other parties, including even the leftist QS.
The politics of the street and the ballot box were never so far apart – almost like parallel universes. The mainstream parties and media sought to shut down the mass struggle and divert it into the electoral arena. The Liberals portrayed any challenge to government outside of elections every four or five years as illegitimate, backing up this narrow vision with the iron fist of Loi 12. For the PQ, elections always take precedence over mobilisation in the streets. Pauline Marois removed her red square when the election writ was issued and called for a moratorium on strikes and demonstrations.
Unfortunately, QS acquiesced to this parliamentary fetishism, failing to follow through on its support for the students by making it a key campaign issue.
In the end, the Liberals retained their firm hold on anglophone and allophone voters, as well as on francophone federalists. Hostility to the striking students was no doubt a factor in buttressing the Liberal vote. But in the end the national question proved once again to be the most important line of demarcation in Quebec politics. Renegade pequiste, Francois Legault, and his CAQ failed to dislodge either of the two major parties. The CAQ is an amalgam of disparate forces. Like its predecessor, the Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ) (whose remnants it absorbed) its staying power cannot be guaranteed. But its relative success confirms the base for right wing populist anti-working class politics.
On the left, QS doubled its vote to 6% and elected a second member of the National Assembly — a modest advance, but less than expected and limited principally to Montreal. Undoubtedly, QS support was diminished by the pressure for a tactical PQ vote to defeat the Liberals. It is difficult to challenge this lesser-evil logic from a strictly electoralist standpoint. Needed is a patient explanation of the pro-capitalist nature of the PQ and the way it blocks the national and social aspirations of the vast majority in Quebec society. To be sure, the PQ still retains something of a social democratic halo. However, this image is increasingly tarnished, particularly when struggles break out and the PQ’s true class loyalty is revealed.
Unfortunately, QS leaders Amir Kadir and Francoise David muddied the waters towards the end of the campaign by offering to support a PQ minority government to, in their words “pull the PQ to the centre left.” In the end, the vote for the Liberals and the CAQ was too strong, and for the left too weak to give this scheme any legs. What it reveals is the short-sighted electoralism and political confusion of the QS leaders. Most importantly, such proposals nourish false hopes in the PQ and in the dubious proposition that a centre-left option is available in the crisis-wracked capitalist system.
Neither the Liberals nor the CAQ have any such illusion. They are aggressive partisans of the employers’ agenda: decisively weakening the power of the unions, selling off or dismantling the public assets dating from Quebec’s ‘Quiet Revolution’, following the lead of Ottawa in fiscal and foreign policy, and staying within the Canadian federation. They are committed to accelerating the pace of neo-liberal ‘reforms’.
Together these two right wing parties received almost 60% of the vote. Ottawa and the anglo-Canadian bourgeoisie can take some comfort in the strong showing of the Liberals, the PQ’s relative weakness, and the emergence of the CAQ as a kind of back-up plan to ensure Quebec’s compliance with neo-liberal austerity. The PQ’s pledge to rescind Law 12 and roll back the Charest college fee increases goes against this agenda. The demand for free education does even more so. This is the moment to escalate the pressure on the PQ, and to advance a radical new agenda.
Quebecois workers need a party which undertakes the vigorous defense of their class interests by fighting for independence and socialism. Quebec Solidaire is not yet that party, but it is an expression of an emerging class differentiation which has been lacking historically in Quebec politics. The way forward for QS lies in a break with parliamentary manoeuvering, advancing a coherent anti-neo-liberal programme, and acting as a consistent champion of popular struggles such as the mass movement of students and their allies this spring and summer that succeeded in bringing down a hated neo-liberal regime.