It will take a few days, if not weeks, to dissect the results of the September 4 election. First off, I think the left has to be candid in its balance sheet. Meanwhile, here are a few observations that touch on a number of questions that need to be discussed in depth.
The attempted assassination of Pauline Marois has aroused much emotion, and rightly so. The media were quick to present it as an act of madness and to lay full responsibility for the killing on a deranged individual, which the suspect appears to be (for now).
However, they remain silent about the hate campaign raging against the Parti Québécois, the idea of sovereignty and the referendum, in the media of English Canada, especially in the gutter press (Quebecor Sun), but also in the usually less sulphurous media such as the CBC. This hate campaign slips easily into a more or less subtle racism aimed at “loud-mouth” Québécois, “always complaining and living off handouts from Canada,” etc.
Emerging at the margin or the far right of this discourse are the more or less visible social networks where actual calls for murder can be heard. Fertile ground for this kind of desperado action. Reason enough for us to inquire into the broader sources of the incident, which does not mean engaging in any kind of conspiracy theory.
The victory of the right
The Quebec right was the solid winner in the election. The combined vote of close to 60% for the PLQ and CAQ is an unequivocal indication. Of course, the voters were led to cast their ballots for these formations for all kinds of reasons. The PLQ and CAQ are not identical. But they are right-wing parties and uncompromising opponents of any progressive change in Quebec. Both parties are shameless in their message:
It is necessary to restore a balanced government budget and repay the debt, which means passing off the bill on the popular classes.
It is necessary to privatize and dismantle entire sections of the public sector inherited from the Quiet Revolution.
It is necessary to weaken the unions strategically, by any and all means.
It is necessary to accept the fiscal and monetary policies determined largely by Ottawa, and step up the “neoliberal reforms.”
It is necessary to remain within the Canadian confederation.
A majority of the population voted for that, and that means something. To be sure, we have to take into account the fact that a major part of the electorate was motivated by the fear spread by the media and the right-wing formations. A technical but important consideration: the “undecided” in the polls are for the most part people who vote on the right but do not say so, which falsifies the polls.
The “traditional” right (the PLQ) is completely dominant in the electoral choices of the Anglophone and Allophone minorities. This is not new, but it was conceivable that in the circumstances (the scandals surrounding the Charest government) this support would have weakened. But for now this reality seems to be a permanent fixture, so powerful is the fear of the possibility of Quebec sovereignty in this 20% of the population. To which must be added another significant percentage (largely composed of Francophones over the age of 55) who likewise reject any perspective of change.
François Legault lost his bet, but the CAQ will remain. First, there is the old populist (ADQ) base, which is relatively solid and might stand at somewhere between 15 and 20%. Then there will be Legault’s efforts to rely on the coming problems of the PLQ (foreseeable in the continuation of the Charbonneau Commission) to nibble at the edges of the PLQ. However, it is possible that Legault’s project will get lost in internal bickering since it is, overall, a disparate coalition of the right but with subsisting fractures (the “far” right, some “soft nationalists,” etc.).
Last but not least, the federal state (the only “real” state in Canada) can be happy with the way things are going. The guarantor of “Canada Inc.” and “Quebec Inc.,” this state knows that with the PLQ it has a “safe investment” solidly anchored in the machinery of state and class in Canada. Furthermore, the state now has a “Plan B” with the CAQ, which constitutes an insurance policy in some ways. The situation in Quebec allows Harper to continue with his conservative revolution.
This “bitter victory,” as Le Devoir columnist Michel David puts it, represents the worst of scenarios for the PQ. Its electoral base will not allow it to confront the PLQ and the CAQ other than on secondary issues. The PQ did not progress one iota from the outset of the campaign. It is a minority force in Montréal and Quebec City, the two urban centres containing more than 60% of Quebec’s population.
With all due respect to [newly elected PQ MNA] Jean-François Lisée, the PQ government will be bound hand and foot. It is practically impossible to imagine that on some substantial questions the PLQ or CAQ can support the government, even if, for differing reasons, neither party is hankering for a quick return to an election. They will have wide latitude to block the legislative agenda and to call the PQ’s bluff on many major issues. It was different when Harper was in a minority government situation, between 2006 and 2011, since on many major issues the Liberal opposition’s policy coincided with Harper’s. That is not the case now in Quebec.
In more than half of the ridings [electoral divisions] won by the PQ, it was due to the division of the vote between the PLQ and the CAQ, and not to an increase in its own vote. Despite the confusion produced by Quebec’s undemocratic voting system, neither the PQ nor any other party can reach the critical mass if it remains at 33% support.
In a dozen or so ridings, it was the reverse process, and the PQ lost because the vote was divided with Québec solidaire and Option nationale. In this context, it can be said that Marois’ refusal to negotiate with the “small” parties worsened the defeat.
For Quebec Inc., the PQ remains an implacable enemy. The rulers, all tendencies combined, think it must be eradicated. This reality leads to the end of the dream of Jacques Parizeau, who tried to convince at least some section of Quebec Inc. to come on board the sovereigntist project.
The left saved face with the election of Amir Khadir and Françoise David, plus the performance of such candidates as Manon Massé, Serge Roy and Andres Fonticella. Its vote is up (to 6%, an increase of 2.2% from the previous election), which probably means that more than 225,000 people voted QS. That is significant. If we add that the campaign was conducted in almost all of Quebec’s ridings, with thousands of members involved and a campaign infrastructure far superior to what existed previously, it is clear that the party made some progress. However, the result is below expectations; we were hoping for 8% and more than two elected members. Retroactively, we note that these expectations were partly exaggerated, based on “internal polling” done a bit too quickly and not taking into account the “undecided” (most of whom vote on the right).
Françoise’s victory is the result of her performance in the leaders’ debate, rather than the emergence of QS as a coherent and credible political project. This victory is encouraging, to be sure, but its political significance is reduced by the fact that it largely depends on a media effect that generally works against the left (fortunately, there are exceptions).
Other rather negative realities: The left vote does not go beyond the centre of Montréal, into the regions (even where there is a progressive trade-union tradition, as in Abitibi or the North Shore of the St. Lawrence). Nor is it significant in the non-Francophone communities, although it may be somewhat in Laurier-Dorion thanks to the hard work of QS candidate Andres Fonticella. Moreover, a major part of the electorate that is sympathetic to the left accepted the PQ argument for the “strategic vote.”
The popular organizations and trade unions stood aside from the campaign, content to denounce Charest (with a few exceptions such as the Montréal Central Council of the CSN and some union locals). The students were more explicit, although the CLASSE adopted a relatively abstentionist discourse, taking refuge in the paradigm of “non-partisanship.” That fact that thousands of popular organizations pretty well everywhere in the world see nothing wrong in supporting left parties (on the contrary) does not seem to have altered this mind-set in Quebec. This is a huge obstacle.
To be continued
The various components of the popular movement will soon be drawing up their balance sheet (or balance sheets), and this will enable us to get a much clearer picture. It will be necessary to work hard at identifying what could have been done in the last campaign. This may be a more urgent question than it appears, for there is a strong risk that we will soon be back in an election campaign!
Perhaps the most important thing is to begin to build a strategy in the new context of the minority PQ government. I think it is important to avoid having the right-wing and its numerous house intellectuals monopolize the debate. We might think of ways to help our two QS elected members to develop some tools for “speaking forcefully” in Québec. We must use as much space as possible to get a hearing, which is quite a challenge in the context of our “Berlusconi-ized” media and the omnipresence of the Right.
Some themes that might be explored:
How can the left develop deeper roots in the regions and among the immigrant communities?
What is to be done about the “religion” of non-partisanship that prevails in the mass movements, blocking the debate on the need to link popular struggles and the political battle?
On what bases can we dialogue with the PQ, especially in the framework of the National Assembly? What are the proposals that might destabilize the (right-wing) majority?
Should the left envisage intervening on the municipal level, where a major part of the Right is installed?
Translated by Richard Fidler from Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme.