Québec elections: victory for the Liberal Party : A wind of reaction ?

PQ

Defeated PQ Premier Pauline Marois

On April 7th 2014, the Québec Liberal Party (PLQ) won a majority government with 70 MPs elected (41.2 % of votes), despite widespread allegations corruption. The PLQ campaigned mainly on the claim of providing jobs and opposition to the PQ’s Charter.

The Parti Québécois (PQ), who declared the elections from their minority government, thinking they would win, were reduced to 30 seats (25.38% of votes, losing 24 seats and 6.37% of votes). The exiting premier, Pauline Marois, lost in her own riding and shortly after announced her departure from politics, in much the same manner as Jean Charest (PLQ) in 2012.

The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), the right-wing populist party, despite losing 6% of their votes won 3 additional MPs for a total of 22. The CAQ campaigned as the alternative to the two leading parties.

Québec Solidaire (QS), the left-leaning social-democratic party that attracts many anti-capitalist activists, gained an additional MP for a total of 3. QS won 7.63%  of votes (323,000 votes) a steady increase in support with 60,000 more votes than in the  last election of 2012.

After the Maple Spring, 18 months of PQ government

On September 4th 2012, the Parti Québécois (PQ) was elected with a left-wing programme, following the mass social unrest of the Maple Spring, the largest student strike movement in the history of Québec. For months, students took to the streets, protesting against the PLQ’s tuition hike. The PQ promised to abolish the hike, abrogate Law 78 (a law limiting the right to protest proposed by the PLQ that incensed general sentiment against the tuition hike) and repeal the PLQ’s “health tax”. After the PQ’s election, with Pauline Marois occupying the role of Québec’s first female prime minister, they kept their important promises regarding the tuition hike and Law 78.

Historically the PQ had a social-democratic tinge to its nationalism, being formed out of the social movements of the Quiet Revolution and the Common Front struggles, which included general strikes. The power of Québec unions remains, with the highest union density in Canada of 40%. The PQ introduced the child daycare, and was the only province to continue to fund new social housing after the Federal government stopped support in 1993. In the late 1990s the PQ began to move rightwards, cutting government spending, which gave rise to formation of QS in 2006. However, most unions and Francophone workers continued to support the PQ.

The PQ government, after delivering its immediate election promises, veered to the right and showed their true colours. They drastically cut funding to universities and restricted vulnerable populations’ access to welfare. The most recent Marceau budget included hikes in Québec’s successful child daycare of $2 per day, and increased Hydro-Québec tariffs (4.3 % starting April 2014).

Furthermore, the PQ continued the Québec Liberal’s pet project of selling off natural resources, the North Plan, which gives large mining companies discount prices for the natural resources in Québec’s North. They also approved Enbridge’s proposal to reverse the flow of their pipelines across Québec to export Alberta Tar Sand’s diluted bitumen, despite serious environmental and safety concerns. The PQ government took no action following the disastrous derailment in Lac Mégantic of a train carrying crude oil, which exploded killing 47 people and destroyed the town centre. Marois’ government actually authorised the beginning of oil exploitation on the island of Anticosti, to the despair of the local community.

However, all of these issues were eclipsed by the PQ’s “Charter of Québec Values”, which dominated the media for the past year. The proposed Charter would, in the PQ’s terms, protect some fundamental Québécois values, such as secularism and equality between men and women. The most controversial aspect of the Charter is the banning of ostentatious religious symbols for all state employees (including teachers and day care workers). The banned symbols include the Jewish kippah/yarmulke and the hijab. As a result of the Charter, many workers would be faced with the choice of removing their religious symbols, or losing their jobs.

To add insult to injury, the Charter includes the preservation of the crucifix in the National Assembly, as the PQ claims it is part of Québec’s history. The left failed to react cohesively against the charter project. There is no unity in the opposition: while many organisations came together to organise a pro-Charter demonstration in late October 2013, the counter-demonstration was organised by ultra-leftists who did little more than denounce the Charter as racist. There was no attempt to rally workers in a large-scale opposition movement. Québec Solidaire proposed a revised charter which would limit the ban to employees who represent the authority of the state, namely judges and police officers, but their proposal came late and hardly made waves.

The PQ hoped that the Charter would increase their support from right-wing voters nationalist voters and steal votes from the CAQ. The PQ further appealed to the right by selecting Pierre-Karl Péladeau as a candidate, a media mogul well known for his anti-union stance and record of 14 lock-outs. Québec’s largest union, the FTQ, in a press release, called him the “champion of work conflicts” and “one of the worst employers in Québec history”. This backfired as voters flocked instead to the PLQ who campaigned on their supposed economic management abilities.

The introduction of the Charter, the cuts in public services and the selection of Péladeau as a candidate are all signs of the PQ abandoning its traditional social-democratic colouring and moving to be a right. It is increasingly clear that it is a bourgeois nationalist party, more concerned with protecting an exclusionary Québécois identity and exacerbating a fear of immigrants, than protecting the jobs of public service workers.

With Marois’ resignation, the race for PQ leadership began the night of the election defeat. The likely candidates for leadership are Pierre-Karl Péladeau, representing the economic right-wing and supported by revered ex-PQ leader Bernard Landry; Bernard Drainville, the minister responsible for Charter; and a faction leaning more to the left, likely led by Jean-François Lisée. These elections were a devastating blow to the PQ, even leading to predictions of its eventual dissolution.

Looking Ahead

Despite minimal media coverage, QS still managed to make gains, in votes and an additional MP. In order to move forward, QS needs to find support outside of the island of Montreal, and work on gaining the support of workers. Though the Montreal CSN (Conseil Central de Montréal – the Montreal Labour Council) gave QS their support, stating it is the party best positioned to defend the interests of the working class, and the party’s campaign for better conditions for workers, the working class does not see itself represented by the party. Recent immigrants tend to vote Liberal rather than QS. Historically most of Québec’s unions have supported the PQ. The shift of the PQ to neo-liberalism, and right wing nationalism creates an opportunity for QS to make real gains.

The election of a majority PLQ government was a blow to students active in the struggle against the tuition hike in 2012. The most radical student union, ASSÉ, campaigned against austerity during the PQ government and organised a large-scale protest on April 3rd, demanding that “the rich pay their fair share”. The protest was declared illegal from the beginning, but thousands of people still participated with 60,000 students on strike to attend the protest, and a number of unions and community organisations openly showed their support (teachers union, women’s and housing rights groups, etc). This shows the power of students, linked to the labour movement, in opposing the capitalist political class.

The union movement is wary of a Liberal government, as the government has already announced its intention to considerably “reduce the weight of the state”, especially by freezing salaries for public services employees. Union federations are preparing for struggle. With collective negotiations of public sector workers coming up in 2015, 500,000 workers have grouped in a common front to negotiate together rather than individually.

There is the potential in this struggle to unite all opposition to austerity, with public sector workers, students and private sector workers joining together. The public sector unions need to link the demand for wage increases with demands such as taxing capital and the rich to fund social programs and for an end to austerity.

With the perspective of increased struggle against cuts and austerity, Alternative Socialiste helped to found a shop stewards’ network, Offensive Syndicale, on February 5, to coordinate action of rank-and-file union activist and call for a national day of disruptions against all hikes. The network already has official support from the biggest local union in Québec with 4,500 members, the SECHUM-CSN.

Québec workers and students have a rich tradition of struggle. If QS can link with campaigns and struggles outside of the National Assembly and raise the ideas of socialism, it can become a powerful pole of opposition to neo-liberalism and right-wing nationalism in Québec.

 

Posted in: Canada, Quebec