Understanding Québec solidaire’s electoral breakthrough

Photo by Québec solidaire

Summing up the October 1st provincial election results, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, co-spokesperson of Québec solidaire, said it best: “the era of the two-party system is finished in Quebec.” Indeed, the political landscape has changed radically. The two parties that dominated Quebec politics for the past half-century now lay in tatters.

The incumbent Liberal Party of Quebec (PLQ), which is staunchly federalist and deeply unpopular after a mandate defined by harsh austerity measures and frequent corruption scandals, sunk to a historical low of 25% and 31 seats. As for the official opposition, the Parti Québécois—once upon a time mildly social democratic, but heavily discredited by its soft-pedaling of its main plank of Quebec independence, compounded by adherence to austerity policies while in office—suffered a crushing defeat, plummeting to an all-time low of 17% and 10 seats.

The winning party, the right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ)—founded in 2012 by former PQ minister and millionaire businessman François Legault, together with some prominent Liberal dissidents—garnered 37% of the popular vote and a majority of 74 of the 125 seats in the Quebec National Assembly. Campaigning on “clean government” and “the need for change now,” this neoliberal and nationalist (but opposed to independence) party, which has developed a strong anti-immigrant streak reminiscent of Trump’s right-wing populism, tapped into popular discontent, particularly outside of Montreal.

Despite its majority in parliament, courtesy of the distortions induced by Quebec’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the CAQ’s popular support is rather weak. Factoring in the low rate of voter turnout in this election (at 66.4% it is the second lowest in 90 years), the CAQ’s real support sits at barely 25% among eligible voters.

The Left Surge

However, the real surprise of this watershed election was the performance of the broad left, pro-independence party, Québec solidaire (QS), which doubled its share of the popular vote and tripled its seat count. Dismissed by most pundits while standing at 8% in early pre-election polls, QS was the only party that made consistent gains throughout the campaign, finally achieving its best electoral results since its founding in 2006: 16% of the popular vote and 10 seats, including 4 outside the Montreal area.

For the first time in its short history, QS broke out of Montreal, winning two seats in Quebec City (the province’s second largest city), one seat in Sherbrooke, a university town about 100 miles east of Montreal, and another in Rouyn-Noranda, a mining and forestry resource area in Northwestern Quebec. In Montreal, the province’s largest city, Québec solidaire doubled its seat count to 6 while gathering close to 25% of the popular vote. Outside of the two main cities, QS still lags significantly behind the other three main parties, but it nonetheless more than doubled its vote total and gained two seats.

Québec solidaire : Popular Vote and Seats in 2014 & 2018 General Elections

Nonetheless, with the two other opposition parties destabilized by their catastrophic election showing and now also leaderless (the PLQ and PQ leaders both resigned in the aftermath of the election), QS has an excellent opportunity to take on the mantle of the real people’s opposition in parliament, further consolidate its links with the popular movements, and grow its influence across the province.

Bolstering Québec solidaire’s future prospects is its excellent showing among young voters in the 18 to 35 age bracket where, according to most polls, it now ranks first with 35% to 38% support. Going forward, QS, with 20,000 members in a province of 8 million, has the most energized and youthful base of support of any political formation in Quebec.

Winning Over Discontented Voters

The main challenge QS faced in this campaign was to win over discontented voters. Anger at the reigning Liberal Party was rife following its savage cuts in health care, education, and social security. With the discredited PQ in free-fall, the CAQ did its best to hide its conservative neoliberal agenda, running a centrist campaign that they hoped might win over voters seeking an alternative to the unpopular Liberals. As of January 2018, when the CAQ first grabbed the lead in the polls (albeit with a weak 31% to 35% support), the danger of a xenophobic right-wing party surfing to power on a wave of popular discontent became quite real.

Québec solidaire opted for a strategy of driving a wedge between its people-centered stance and the three pro-neoliberal parties, systematically branding them as being run by the same corrupt political elite that had long ago sold out to corporations and the privileged few. Repeatedly its two spokespeople, the popular 55-year-old community and LGBTQ activist Manon Massé and the telegenic 28-year-old former student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, stressed the similarities between the three main parties and highlighted the radical shift that QS advocates. Underlining the point, Québec solidaire adopted the slogan “Populaire” for its main election poster to convey the message that it is a party “of the people and for the people.”

Despite constant pressure from the Parti québécois and its media allies to build an electoral alliance to allegedly “block the right” through a “common front of independentists and progressives,” Québec solidaire rejected this poison pill at its May 2017 convention with a decisive 70% vote. Citing the PQ’s adoption of neoliberal austerity measures during its stints in government, as well as the party’s penchant for flirting with xenophobic appeals to lure conservative nationalist voters away from the CAQ, QS opted instead to merge with a small left party, Option nationale, that had broken away from the PQ in 2011. This principled alliance proved beneficial, as Québec solidaire’s two ultimately successful candidates in Quebec City were the leaders of this breakaway group.

A People’s Platform

Québec solidaire’s electoral platform sought to illustrate this “us versus them” approach by skillfully combining immediate demands popular with the social movements—such as a $15 per hour minimum wage, free public education from daycare through university, and universal dental care—with a call to transition to a green economy, featuring an immediate ban on fossil fuel extraction, heavy public investments in electric mass transit systems, and banning the sale of gas-powered cars by 2030.

The transition plan, issued midway through the campaign as an 86-page booklet titled “Maintenant ou jamais” (Now or Never), also called for the creation of 300,000 green jobs by 2030 and publicly-funded programs to help workers and affected communities transition away from fossil fuel industries (1).

Derided as unrealistically radical and socialist by the mainstream media and other opponents, QS refused to buckle and instead upped the ante by proposing that this $12.9 billion proposal be funded by massive tax increases on corporations and high-income earners, well-aimed carbon taxes, and an expanded public Green Fund. Despite the constant barrage of criticism, this transition plan has proved highly popular with environmentalists, union activists, young voters, and progressives. It turned out to be key to energizing Québec solidaire’s base in the popular movements and bringing out the youth vote.

On the immigrant question, a hot-button issue that has seen both the CAQ and PQ veer into islamophobia and xenophobia, QS has taken a principled stand criticizing the scapegoating of immigrants. Two of its seats are now held by first-generation immigrants. Palestinian-born Rubal Ghazal was elected in Mercier and Chilean-born former party chairman, Andrès Fontecilla, won in Laurier-Dorion. Both ridings are in Montreal’s central-eastern area, where QS strength is concentrated.

Alone among the four main parties, QS has backed the call for a public inquiry into systemic racism and has advanced a proposal for compulsory 25% hiring of visible minorities (2) in the public sector to speedily reach the 13% proportion they constitute in Quebec. QS also ran the highest number of visible minority candidates, 14 out of 125.

On the question of Quebec independence, the party has adopted a radical-democratic and inclusive posture, calling for a constituent assembly elected by universal suffrage to draft the constitution of a sovereign nation that would fully recognize minority rights. It also proposes to enter into nation-to-nation negotiations with indigenous peoples in full recognition of their rights to self-determination and control of their lands (3).

Election Tactics: Inspired by France Insoumise and Podemos?

Québec solidaire’s election tactics bear more than a passing resemblance to those adopted by Spain’s Podemos and France Insoumise. These two radical left European formations each ran successful domestic election campaigns employing a political strategy, often attributed to radical Belgian thinker Chantal Mouffe, known as “left populism” (4).

A quick review of the tactics used by QS reveals clear similarities to those of these two European left formations, including:

– an anti-elite discourse and refusal to compromise with social-liberal parties; – an inclusive and diverse vision of who constitutes “the people”; – a program drawn from the popular movements and offering radical social change; – creative campaign tools, combining strong presence in mainstream media, energetic use of social media, dynamic local outreach, and scores of activists on the ground.

There is however at least one notable difference. While both Podemos and France Insoumise have tended to shy away from the “left” label, Québec solidaire has always stressed its left identity and social movement roots. In the Quebec landscape, dominated for so long by the “federalist versus independentist” political divide, constantly reaffirming the need for a left alternative was and remains an absolute must. It is a prerequisite for combining Quebec’s “national question” with class, social, feminist and environmental concerns toward a truly emancipatory, anti-capitalist project.

Challenges Ahead

Mobilization from below: The new right-wing government will probably unleash some of the harshest neoliberal and xenophobic attacks in recent history. Québec solidaire, with its new strength in the political scene, will come under tremendous pressure to moderate its discourse and confine itself to the parliamentary arena. However, only a massive mobilization of social movements in the streets can tip the balance of forces and block the right-wing offensive. Having ten QS members in the National Assembly will help give voice to the popular opposition, but the real battle will be fought outside of parliament.

The party leadership is aware of the challenges ahead, and already on election night vowed that Québec solidaire would remain a popular political movement fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with all those seeking fundamental social and economic change. Concretizing this party-movement idea will entail shifting the focus of local and regional party organizations away from the electoral arena, where it’s been for much of the past year, and toward the social front, where alliances, united fronts, and the unity of social movements will become a primary task.

A system-changing transition: The economic and ecological transition plan was an unqualified success, but it was published during the campaign as an electoral document and must be further deepened to bring it in line with a QS party program that proposes to go “beyond capitalism,” aiming in the long run for “the socialization of economic activities” and “national and democratic planning.” At the same time, the transition plan must be further popularized. Social movement activists should be invited to discuss and improve it with a view to making it a truly systemic proposal as well as an action plan for the coming battles on the environmental front.

Immigration: The new CAQ government has already announced its intention to legislate a reduction in immigration by 20% and is toying with the idea of imposing a “value test” that would see newcomers who failed it being denied status. Under the pretext of promoting secularism, it is also ramping up xenophobia with a proposal to ban the wearing of conspicuous religious signs such as hijabs, turbans, and kippahs among public school teachers and representatives of the state in position of authority (such as judges, police, and prison guards).

Québec solidaire has steadfastly opposed xenophobic policies and promotes an open vision of secularism that prioritizes the neutrality of state institutions in not restricting the individual rights of private citizens. It has opposed the banning of religious signs among public school teachers but guardedly supported it in the case of judges, police, and prison guards in line with the proposals made by an independent public commission in 2007 (5). One of the commissioners, McGill University professor Charles Taylor, has since changed his mind on this question, and some in the anti-racist movement are asking the party to reconsider. This is a highly sensitive issue that must be tackled seriously and with extensive consultations involving all currents of the anti-racist movement, toward the adoption of a position of unity in the face of the divisive CAQ offensive.

International solidarity: Quebec is a small island of eight million people in a vast North American continent made up of powerful capitalist states. None is more powerful than the imperial state immediately to the south, presently in the throes of Donald Trump’s frenzied, aggressive, far-right presidency. As the painful example of the Syriza government shows, attempts to break away from the neoliberal order can be crushed mercilessly, by economic or other means if necessary.

Québec solidaire has proudly proclaimed its alter-globalist roots and sought to contact and deepen relationships with social movements and left organizations across North America and the world. But this is not enough, and a more pro-active approach must be taken towards the burgeoning popular and left movements in the USA and Canada particularly. There is much to be shared on common issues such as immigration and the environment, and a lot to be learned from each other in terms of building popular left organizations rooted in the working classes. Articulating a strategic international perspective is one of the important challenges that lays ahead for Québec solidaire and the Québécois left.

This article originally appeared on RosaLux-NYC.org.

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