Quebec’s student movement has claimed a victory with the toppling of the right-wing Liberal government in the September 4 election.
The opposition Parti Quebecois (PQ) looks set to form government, winning the most seats ahead of the right-wing Liberal Party who had governed for the past nine years. Quebec's largest pro-independence party, the PQ has, in government, also implemented neoliberal policies.
The power of the student movement forced the PQ to promise to stop the Liberals’ plans for a rise in university and college fees and repeal its draconian law against the student movement.
However, the PQ did not win enough seats to form a majority government. It may form government with the newly formed Coalition for the Future of Quebec (CAQ), a conservative party that includes former members of the PQ.
Liberal Premier Jean Charest was humiliatingly dumped from his own seat by voters and resigned as Liberal leader.
However, the overall vote for the Liberals was higher than most expected at 31%, just 1% behind the PQ. Many had tipped the Liberals to finish third behind the CAQ, which won 27%.
The election took place after months of big protests against the Liberal government, sparked by tens of thousands of students going on strike against a proposed rise in tuition fees. The student movement opened up a broad debate that questioned the nature of Quebec society.
The student movement’s demands went beyond the issue of the tuition fee rise, demanding the abolition of fees on all forms of education. It also raised broader social issues and sought to include all sections of society in the protests in a direct challenge to the neoliberal economic model pushed by the Liberals and the PQ.
The more radical demands and actions were pushed by the Broad Coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity (CLASSE) student coalition.
CLASSE member Camille Robert told Rabble.ca on September 4: “Soon after the student movement began, it spread to include members of the general population. That was visible at protests. Our demands touched on those of others [...] elderly people, families.”
Unable to make the students back down, the government passed the draconian Law 12, to try to criminalise the student movement. It put anti-democratic restrictions on the ability for students to strike and protest, and sought to stall the movement by ending the semester early.
However, Rabble.ca said on September 6 that the political scalps claimed by the student movement showed its decisive role: “Two education ministers, a Premier and a government defeated. The tuition hikes and Law 12 set to be repealed.
“It's hard to interpret that as anything less than a sweeping victory for the students and their allies.”
Former spokesperson of CLASSE Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said: “In politics, the victories are never as bright as you would like. We must make do. But for the moment, we should not be embarrassed to say that we won.”
The win for the PQ was largely an expression of dissatisfaction with the Liberals. The Liberals had been hurt by their handling of the student strike and an inquiry thaqt exposed links between the Liberal Party and corrupt dealings in the building industry.
The election was called early in an effort to protect the Liberals from declining popularity. With the corruption inquiry yet to get into full swing, an early election was needed to protect the party from being defeated once more incriminating details emerged.
The Liberals portrayed themselves as defenders of Quebec against the student mob, banking on the vote of the supposed “silent majority” of people who opposed the student strike.
The Liberals also raised fears about the PQ’s support for independence from Canada. Public support for an independent Quebec has fallen to about a third of the population.
However, the student campaign had swayed public perception of the Liberals as out of touch and arrogant, and the undemocratic Law 12 was opposed by about 60% of people.
The timing of the election was also designed to disrupt striking students who were due to begin a new semester late last month. It was likely that the government hoped the election would narrow the political focus of Quebec and divert attention from the students’ demands.
Left-wing party Quebec Solidaire (QS) gained a second seat in parliament with the election of feminist and activist Francoise David. It came close to winning two other seats.
QS’s rise in popularity ― up to 6% of the overall vote ― was due to its solidarity with the student movement and its promotion of the movement’s aims.
The defeat of the Liberal Party is a positive for the student movement, but the PQ has a history of implementing the same kind of neoliberal policies that spurred the huge student strike.
The student movement is likely to have new challenges in the future, especially due to the fact that the more moderate sections of the movement supported the PQ in the election.
Rabble.ca said: “[The students’] work is far from complete, and we remain far from the truly progressive society they have been fighting for, but the social movement should take a moment today to pat itself on the back.
“Tomorrow, and in the days to come, you can rest assured it will return. The strike will likely remain suspended, unless [new Premier Pauline] Marois breaks her promises, but this movement has gotten a taste of the immense power ordinary people have when they work together.
“If there is one enduring legacy of this year's events, which far outstrips fleeting victory over Charest, it is the awakening of an entire generation.”