Quebec: CAQ in power, QS on the rise

by Robbie Mahood  (October 20, 2018)

For the past 45 years, governmental power in Quebec has alternated between the federalist Parti Liberal du Québec (PLQ) and the sovereigntist Parti Quebec (PQ). That political era has ended.

Both these parties were punished by the electorate. The Liberals fell to less than 25% of the vote, the lowest in its history. The PQ paid a high price for its support of neoliberal austerity and the parallel weakening of its commitment to independence. It could manage only 17% of the vote and went from 30 to 10 seats.

The Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) takes up the reins of power with 74 of the 125 seats.   It is a right of centre party deploying a xenophobic identitarian nationalism to conceal more austerity, privatization and fossil fuel friendly policies.

The CAQ is a motley crew of disaffected former Liberals and PQistes under the leadership of Francois Legault, an ex-PQ minister and one-time airline CEO. During the campaign, Legault threatened to raise barriers to immigration and ban the wearing of the hijab in the civil service and schools.  The CAQ opposes independence but will pose as the best defender of Quebec ‘interests’ in negotiations with Ottawa and the other provinces.

Quebec’s small left party, Quebec Solidaire (QS), emerged as the other winner in this election. It more than doubled its popular vote to 16% and went from 3 to 10 deputies in the National Assembly, level with the PQ.

Among the plethora of minor parties, the Greens fared best with 1.68% of the vote followed by the Conservatives with 1.46 % and trailing badly, the newly launched provincial Quebec New Democratic Party (NDP) at 0.57 %. The NDP’s attempt to split the left vote failed miserably and deservedly so.

As elsewhere throughout the advanced and not so advanced capitalist world, Quebec is experiencing a populist moment.  There is the same disenchantment with what Tariq Ali calls the parties of “the extreme centre” – in the case of Quebec, the Liberals and PQ – and a polarization along right-left lines even if expressed in populist rather than clearly class terms.

Although more restrained, the CAQ bears comparison with the right wing xenophobic parties in Europe and with Doug Ford’s reactionary Tory regime next door in Ontario. It is noteworthy that Legault received a welcome tweet from Marie Le Pen, leader of France’s Front National, on the morrow of the CAQ victory.

QS provided a left response to the CAQ. After years of stifling neoliberal consensus, its high visibility campaign came as a breath of fresh air. It emphasized the diversity of its candidates and an anti-austerity program that highlighted universal dental insurance, free education from daycare through university, a transition to free public transit, opposition to fossil fuel extraction and rehabilitating the vision of an independent Quebec that would be inclusive, egalitarian and open to a new pact with the province’s indigenous peoples.

QS’s decision to spurn an electoral pact with the PQ, last year’s fusion with the small nationalist PQ breakaway, Option Nationale, and the linking of independence with social reform, struck a chord among politically more aware youth and sections of the francophone working class. It is now poised to displace the PQ, even to the extent of duplicating the latter’s early electoral success, starting in Montreal and then extending to the regions.

It seems unlikely the PQ can revive its fortunes. Not so the Liberals. They can recover as long as they monopolize the federalist vote.

What are the prospects for a new alternation between the CAQ and the Liberals? This depends on whether there is room for two parties, both of them neoliberal and federalist.

Many voted for the CAQ as a way of defeating the Liberals. But there is no denying the CAQ’s appeal to xenophobia. It will use nationalist and racist demagogy to divert attention from its mission to serve the needs of Quebec capitalists allied with Anglo-Canadian and transnational capital within the confines of the federal Canadian state.

Yet the CAQ has a weak mandate. It lacks the internal cohesion and reliable base of the outgoing Liberals. It is vulnerable to mass mobilization under vigorous and determined leadership. Will the unions and QS rise to this challenge?

The bureaucratic leadership of the unions is quite disoriented by this turn in Quebec politics. Its de facto alliance with the PQ is sinking. Yet it hesitates to support and intervene in QS.  It has not mobilized the ranks, even half-heartedly, for over two years.

An aggressive drive by the CAQ for more austerity and privatization may shake Quebec labour out of its lethargy. But indispensable is a new leadership in the unions that recognizes it will take mass struggle to win and that Quebec labour must take the road of political independence, an opportunity that was missed in the 1970’s.

While QS is a left party, it is not a party of the working class. It is anti-austerity but lacking in clear class references. In part, this reflects the historic weakness of the Social Democratic and Stalinist traditions in Quebec.

Of more concern is that QS has been silent on two current union struggles, that of the locked-out workers in the aluminum industry and the strike of employees in the province’s liquor stores.

QS has much in common with other left populist formations such as Melanchon’s La France Insoumise, and Podemos in Spain. Although the contexts are different, Sanders in the US and Corbyn in the UK also provide points of reference.

QS’s populism was very evident in the campaign. When Manon Massé, the party’s dynamic co-leader, was pressed by journalists to clarify if she was a Marxist, she was evasive, refusing to say that she was a socialist or even an anti-capitalist. According to her, QS was above all such “isms”’.

QS presents itself as a party of the Quebec nation in which class and national aspirations are fused. Consistent with left populism, QS replaces a perspective of socialist transformation and workers power with the idea of a people or nation against a corrupt elite.

The leadership of QS has set its sights on an eventual parliamentary majority. Its program is divided between limited measures for adoption in a first mandate leaving more radical parts of the program for later implementation. This is reminiscent of the classic divide between minimum and maximum program decreed by European social democracy prior to the First World War. In this way the parties of the Second International transformed themselves into aspiring managers of the capitalist state with at best a limited reform agenda and at worst support for repression at home and imperialist war abroad.

In contrast to social democracy’s absorption by the capitalist system, what is needed is a party that agitates outside parliament for transitional demands that point the way to radical anti-capitalist measures undertaken by a workers’ government.

Many socialist groups in Greece had their fingers burned by their support for the left party, SYRIZA, in 2014. We should be no less guarded in our approach to QS. As the party gets closer to winning a majority in the National Assembly, the pressure to adapt and retreat will be enormous.

Should socialists work within or from outside QS? Is QS on the way or in the way?

The Ligue pour l’Action socialiste (LAS) offered critical support to QS in this election.  We urge the building of a socialist tendency that pushes the party to become an opposition not only in the National Assembly but also in the streets where it must work closely with the unions and allied social movements.  Without an organized tendency, the efforts of individual socialists in QS will be dissipated.

Legault can be expected to pursue more cuts in health care, education and social services, give a green light to fracking and additional suburban auto-routes and introduce measures that further stigmatise immigrants. Will he follow through on his threat to invoke the not-withstanding clause in Canada’s Constitution to ban the hijab in the public service, among teachers, or by anyone in a position of authority such as judges or doctors?

Solidarity with the weakest members of our class is a litmus test for socialists and the labour movement. Forcing a retreat by the CAQ on its anti-immigrant policies will stimulate resistance on other fronts, notably against austerity and degradation of the environment.

The election reveals a nation that is more divided than ever under the weight of decaying social conditions and the bankruptcy of the neoliberal order. A period of political uncertainty and contestation lies ahead. Class divisions are more clearly expressed than at any time in the past 50 years.

That is not to say that the national question has disappeared.

Sentiment for independence is certainly at a low ebb, but the obituary sought by those favouring the federal tie is premature.  The PQ dragged the independence option through the mud of racism and neoliberal reaction. Besides marshalling sentiment against austerity, QS has quietly but perceptibly rescued independence as a means of realizing the social aspirations of the Quebecois. True, the content is vague. But a genuine struggle for independence will of necessity confront the need for a rupture with Anglo-North American capital and its junior partners in Quebec.

This election reveals popular discontent with the status quo and a rejection of the old political order.  Quebec has a long tradition of popular struggle and the highest union density in North America. There is a potential for mass mobilization waiting to be tapped.

Heading into the next period our watchwords should be:

– Quebec Solidaire in the National Assembly but not of the National Assembly. The party’s elected deputies should act as tribunes of the people accountable to the working class, social and climate justice movements.

– Win QS to a Workers’ Agenda. Win the unions to QS.  Quebec needs a fighting party of the working class and its allies.

– Block the CAQ, starting with its racist anti-immigrant agenda and clear the path for mass action against austerity, a halt to climate vandalism, for real climate amelioration, and in support of workers’ and popular struggles.