Pro-sovereignty left scores breakthrough in Quebec elections

Québec solidaire leaders Manon Massé and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.

Quebec’s October 1 general election campaign in Quebec unfolded as two distinct contests, writes Richard Fidler.

One contest was the competition between the Liberals and Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) for control of the government.

The other contest in the predominantly French speaking province of Canada, with a long history of struggling for national sovereignty, was between the Parti québécois (PQ) and Québec solidaire (QS) for hegemony within the pro-sovereignty movement.

In the end, the CAQ replaced the Liberals in government on a platform that claimed to offer “change” (you can see the full results in a table at the bottom). In substance, however, it promises even more of the same capitalist austerity inflicted on the Québécois under successive governments since the mid-1990s. Liberal support is now heavily concentrated in its minority Anglophone enclaves of western Quebec.

Left breakthrough

The real change, however, was registered in the surge of support for the left party QS, which more than doubled its share of the popular vote and elected 10 members to the National Assembly. This is one more than the PQ’s total under the vagaries of the first-past-the-post electoral system.

Although the PQ received slightly more votes, it was a crushing defeat for the party founded 50 years ago by René Lévesque, which as recently as 2014 had governed the province. Jean-François Lisée, defeated in his own constituencies (riding) by the QS candidate, immediately announced his resignation as PQ leader.

In part, this split in popular support reflected a generational shift; pre-election polling showed QS in advance of the PQ among voters under the age of 35. But to some degree, it also reflected a class divide. It marks a rejection among younger voters of the PQ’s record as a party of capitalist austerity and its regressive catering to white-settler prejudice in sharp contrast with Quebec’s increasingly pluricultural composition.

It also as shows a growing determination among many that Quebec sovereignty, to be meaningful, must be integrally connected with the quest for fundamental social change.

Throughout the campaign, the mainstream media argued this was the first election in which Quebec sovereignty was not at issue. But they largely missed the significance of these shifts within the pro-sovereignty movement as it continues to radicalise.

For Québec solidaire, the election campaign was a chance to win support for the party’s ideas, recruit new members, and build its organisation and influence, including in regions outside Montreal. On all counts, it appears to have been successful.

On the eve of the election, political columnist Michel David, in the pro-PQ daily Le Devoir, had to admit that “the emergence of QS as a political force that is in contention from now on has been the outstanding feature of the campaign now closing”.

Broad membership and support

The party now has 20,000 members in a province of 8.3 million. Just over half of its candidates in Quebec’s 125 ridings were women, including a Muslim and an Inuit. Two of its successful candidates are former leaders of Option nationale, another sovereigntist party that merged with QS last year.

In Montréal’s Mercier riding, Québec solidaire’s first elected MNA Amir Khadir (now retired), was replaced by Ruba Ghazal, a Palestinian-Québécoise. Its parliamentary caucus has parity: five women, five men.

Moreover, the party came ahead of the PQ in the popular vote in more than half of the province’s ridings. It is now the second party in Montreal, the Quebec metropolis, where PQ representation was wiped out.

In many ridings, dozens of members worked full-time during the campaign, while hundreds of others canvassed from door-to-door or staffed the phones to talk to voters. Party leaders toured the province in a specially chartered bus. In the months prior to the election and during the campaign, the party held mass assemblies, some drawing audiences of more than 1000.

Party members were urged to design their own posters to illustrate major themes in the QS platform. The results were audacious and astute, with a hint of the élan registered in the 2012 “maple spring” student upsurge. This is a party with some good ideas — and a sense of humour.

Rebuilding the left

QS’s progress in the campaign marks a new advance in a process of rebuilding and recomposition of the left in Quebec that began about 20 years ago. It has proceeded through a series of fusions among different left parties and feminist and community activist movements: the formation of the Union des forces progressistes (UFP) in 2002, the fusion of the UFP with Option Citoyenne in 2006 to form QS, and the fusion of Option nationale with QS last year.

For most of its history, QS has been swimming against the current in Quebec politics. Since the narrow defeat of the 1995 referendum on sovereignty, austerity programs and cutbacks in services implemented by PQ and Liberal governments have seriously weakened the trade unions and unravelled the social fabric of key Quebec institutions and facilities.

The women’s movement is almost unique in maintaining a major presence in civil society. More recently, however, a burgeoning environmental movement has managed to stop (at least for now) the Energy East pipeline project and oil and gas fracking in the St. Lawrence river valley.

The huge student upsurge that shook Quebec in 2012 may have marked a turning point in the anti-neoliberal resistance. One of the leaders of the movement for free post-secondary education, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, joined QS early last year and is now the party’s co-spokesperson along with Manon Massé. When he joined, the party signed up 5000 new members.

In televised debates between the leaders of the four major parties, Massé managed to portray QS as a party that could legitimately sustain its claim to offer a radical and feminist alternative to the capitalist parties. She was, as one media commentator said, the “real revelation” of this campaign.

Radical platform

QS was also the only party to put the climate crisis at the centre of its campaign.

“The fight against climate change is the biggest challenge of our century,” said the party in introducing its 86-page “Economic Transition Plan”, entitled “Now or Never”. It states that human activity is responsible for the increasing ecological imbalances and humanitarian disasters, so radical government action is needed.

Many of the party’s proposals for action before 2030 cannot be implemented within Quebec’s jurisdiction under the Canadian constitution; so it notes that in the present context, these needed measures can only be implemented by a sovereign Quebec.

The party’s platform featured plans for free public transit in major cities within 10 years, and an immediate 50% cut in fares. It would ban all exploration or exploitation of fossil fuels on Quebec territory and invest heavily in wind, solar and geothermal energy production. The party estimates that its climate change measures would create 300,000 new jobs and increase state revenues.

QS also campaigned for free public education from pre-school to university;  expanded public medicare to include universal dental care and pharmacare; food sovereignty promoting small farm production and organic agriculture; building 50,000 eco-energy efficient homes per year; and a new electoral system based on mixed proportional representation.

And it called for a sovereign Quebec in solidarity with the indigenous peoples. A QS government would provide for election of a Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution for an independent Quebec.

In its longer-term program, addressed to measures to be implemented in an independent Quebec, the party says it intends to “go beyond capitalism” and “explore alternative economic systems”. Rejecting economic growth as an objective in itself, it will pay much greater attention to “the social and economic externalities caused by economic activity”.

QS’s campaign won the party significant support from feminists, environmentalists, other pro-independence activists and indigenous leaders. The party is now poised to constitute a major opponent of Quebec’s new right-wing CAQ government both in the National Assembly and the streets.

[A detailed account of the QS campaign and its platform can be found in a longer version of this article at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Richard Fidler is a member of Solidarity Ottawa and of Québec solidaire. He blogs at Life on the Left.] 

 

2018

2014

Parties

Seats

% of vote

Seats

% of vote

Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ)

74

37.4

22

23.1

Liberals (PLQ)

32

24.8

70

41.5

Parti Québécois (PQ)

9

17.1

30

25.4

Québec Solidaire (QS)

10

16.1

3

7.6

Total

125

 

125