Québec elections: the quiet success of the Maple spring

Nedávným volbám v kanadském Québecku byla v tuzemských médiích věnována pouze okrajová pozornost. Vítězství québeckých separatistů po dlouhých 9 letech ale může znamenat pro tuto frankofonní provincii začátek nové éry. Co stojí za neúspěchem federalistů, co byly hlavní témata voleb a co lze očekávat v blízké budoucnosti? Odpovědi naleznete v následujícím komentáři, který exkluzivně pro náš server napsal rodilý Quebečan, Christophe-A. Rouleau-Dick.

      On the 4th of September, Quebecers went to the polls in order to elect their next provincial Prime Minister. Surveys were giving a clear victory to the Parti Québécois of Pauline Marois, oscillating between a majority and a strong minority government. The results have proved them partially wrong, since Pauline Marois has been indeed elected Prime Minister, but with a very thin margin ahead of her traditional rival Jean Charest, a leader of the Quebec Liberals. The following lines attempts to give a picture of the parties in this crucial electoral campaign, to address the issues at the center of the debate and to discuss the conclusions that can be deducted from the results for the near future of Québec.

Two main parties have struggled for power in Québec politics since the 70’s, the separatists in the Parti Québécois (PQ) and the federalists in the Liberal Party of Québec. Jean Charest’s Liberals had been in power since 2003, and those nine years have brought many changes in the social and economic orientations of the province. More neo-liberal than anything policies were focusing on increasing the activities of the private sector, liberalising the economy and attracting foreign direct investments, notably through the ambitious project of “Plan Nord ”[1]. All steps were intended to reduce the State and favour the economic growth. These decisions did not go unnoticed, however, in a generally leftist public opinion, especially students, trade unions and of course the opposition at the national assembly in Québec City.

Policies allowing shale-gas extraction from the Québec Lowlands, a densely populated area, the sale of plots of land in Anticosti Island and the Gulf of St-Laurent by the state-owned energy company Hydro-Québec to private oil companies, as well as the considerable subsidies handed by Québec to foreign mining corporations as incentives for them to exploit the northern Québec resources, contributed to raising protest and pressure from the public opinion. Another unpopular step was the introduction of a health insurance tax of 200.00$ per taxpayer regardless the income level. The latter one was only one of many reasons behind the impressive student movement that shook the province in the spring of 2012. Its roots, however, can be traced back to 2005, when the Charest’s government had reduced the government student loan budget by 103 $CAD millions, provoking major protests coming from student federations, that were supported also by trade unions such as the CSN. Under tremendous pressure, the government had to back down on the measure. But in 2011 the Liberal government with a strong majority in the Parliament came with a new plan to increase tuition fees by 85% over the next seven years – a measure not mentioned in their last electoral campaign.

Soon the student associations organised and fought the tuition hike by taking the streets. The lack of dialogue and what some consider as arrogance from PM Charest, combined with particularly violent crackdowns on protesters, contributed to making the crisis explosive. The bet that the Liberal party made on conservative law and order tactics as well as discourse was a dangerous one, as it encouraged extremists from either side, and marginalised constructive debates about the future of education. Without going in details over this “printemps érable ” [2], it has to be said that the crisis took a deep social dimension. Propositions made by charismatic student leaders included alternative visions of society than the neo-liberal one preached by the party in power. Throughout this long spring that was marked by unprecedented student strikes and protests bringing together more than 300,000 people, the media coverage of the crisis left many Quebecers unsatisfied by the sides they were taking according to the corporations that owned them, and did not help in bringing a solution to the standoff.

In the end, the Charest’s government used its majority to pass Bill-78, a law restraining the right to protest for students and forcing them to return to class. This in some way helped the student movement, as many Quebecers reacted negatively to the suspension of this right for students. Taking a hard stance on the question, Jean Charest played the “law and order” card until the end, betting on the older generation of baby boomers and the business sector to keep him in power as the only one who could stand in front of chaos from the streets. What is interesting with the student movement concerning this election, is that the young generation, which many saw as uninterested by politics, showed an impressive capacity to mobilise and argue visions of society in a constructed manner. We might perhaps witness the birth of another vision for the Québec society; the one based more on social-democrat grounds as seen in Scandinavia for instance.

But corruption is according to many the crucial factor that has sunk the liberal ship in the recent elections. In fact, after many revelations from former politicians and police administrators concerning the collusion between political power and the allocation of public works contracts, the public opinion demanded in a crescendo a commission that would enquire about the extent of the problem. Jean Charest’s lack of immediate response cost him immense political capital, and it took him nearly two years to finally give up and form the Charbonneau commission, which is ongoing at the moment. Many observers have seen the fact that the Liberal government decided to set an election before the commission’s results will be known as a sign of guilt in the corruption scandal.

All these aspects contributed to making Jean Charest the least popular prime minister of Québec since Maurice Duplessis in the 50’s, a right-wing leader who governed during the darkest years of Québec. As the leader of the opposition, Pauline Marois did show a considerable amount of opportunism. Wearing the emblematic red square of the student movement and taking the streets herself sometimes, many considered her as taking advantage of the political situation. She is in fact known to be a very ambitious leader. Coming from a low income family and being married to millionaire, she is presently the most experienced administrator and perhaps the most qualified, since she has presided over 14 ministries throughout her career. Everyone knows that being the first female Prime Minister of Québec was an objective very dear to her. This has raised the questions about the sincerity of her passion over the issues defended by her party. Nevertheless, in terms of the policies, the PQ presents another direction for the province: abolishing the 200$ healthcare fee, stopping completely shale-gas extraction, cancelling tuition hikes, increasing royalties from mining corporations and defending the 7$ a day daycare. The PQ had also the advantage of escaping relatively safely from the corruption scandals in contrast to the Liberals.

The PQ’s raison d’être is first of all attaining independence for Québec. Pressed from all sides to declare whether there will be another referendum (the last one was in 1995), Marois advanced the idea of a referendum from a popular initiative. That means that if 800,000 people signs a petition asking for a referendum, it will bring the debate back to life but still keep room for her government manoeuvre. This was of course a way for Marois to satisfy the hardliners in her party, as well as keeping a moderate image on the issue with the public.

The third major actor of this year’s elections was a new party Coalition Avenir Québec (Coalition for the future of Québec) that is led by François Legault, a former PQ minister. CAQ defines itself as the right side of the political spectrum. Firing high amounts of civil servants in Hydro-Québec, lowering taxes for businesses, restraining trade unions, placing emphasis on work and productivity, and the importance to manage the debt issue better were electoral promises of the CAQ. But perhaps the most important promise, and the star aspect of the program, was its fight with corruption. François Legault based his campaign on transparency and Reagan-era economics. On the federal-separatist question, Mr Legault declared himself a pure federalist, but this raised the question of his trustworthiness since he was one of the strongest advocates for separation in his PQ years. CAQ had taken hard stances against the student movement during the crisis, sometimes asking for a stronger tone from the Premier Charest.

One of the smaller parties that gained in the recent elections was Québec Solidaire (QS) that is led by two co-leaders, Françoise David and Ami Khadir. QS has a platform based on social justice and what can be called advanced progressive policies. As advocates of Québec independence (but based on a social direction rather than ethnic or cultural) it was the party, whose objectives corresponded mostly with the student movement. Its leaders were widely seen at the streets together with the students and sometimes even arrested. The QS brought freshness into the debate and a new approach to issues discussed mostly from an old-politics point of view. The party gained one more seat and now has two in the national assembly.

The events of the “printemps érable”, however, were not that present in the campaign as one would have expected (to the despair of the student movement that was mobilising during campaign in order to oust the Liberals). Corruption was the main issue, and Jean Charest fought every inch to fend off attacks coming from every front. Probably only because of this his party was able to maintain a strong presence in the province by bringing home 50 seats out of 125, very close to the 54 seats for Marois’s minority. This surprisingly good performance by the Liberals can be explained in a diverse manner. The English-speaking population of Québec represents less than one million (out of nearly 8 million), and is mostly found in the region of Montréal. For a majority of them, voting Liberal is a reflex more than anything, and we could have seen that Charest was using the usual scare tactics by portraying Pauline Marois as a potential threat for them. The English media in the province traditionally exaggerates language policies put in place by PQ governments and this does not help in making the debate rational. Moreover, the business class and many self-employed workers see the Liberal party as a defender of their interests, with lower taxes for businesses and corporations, and public funding as well.

This sometimes blind preference for the Liberals from Québec Anglophones highlights one of the problems present in the provincial politics. Scare tactics are what they are – political tools to attain political goals. However, during the PQ’s celebration of victory in Montréal, a member of the English community opened fire on crowd killing a scene technician while shouting that the Anglophones would fight back. It still has to be found if the killer was insane or not, but some questions remain no matter what the conclusion will be. In the reactions on social networks following the PQ win, a high level of verbal violence directed at Pauline Marois could be seen, many even inviting to literally kill the PQ leader. The reaction of the Anglophone community after the attack was that the attacker was apparently simply insane. Nevertheless, a few commentators pointed out the easiness of that conclusion, giving as a counter example, that if a French-Canadian did the same thing in an English-speaking province, the first motives invoked by the press would probably be that he is a Québec terrorist. This is quite speculative of course, but one might find indeed that the English coverage of Québec politics does very poorly in terms of describing neutrally the French reality of the province.

Another important trend we can identify from the last electoral campaign is that the Québec society seems to be facing very different futures. The Liberal party, from a progressive entity that it was in the 1960’s, with its then leader Robert Bourassa, took lately a neo-liberal orientation. In this shift, it is easy to recognise that Jean Charest had started his political career in the Reform party, a very conservative party at the federal level. If Québec took this path, then it would move closer to the general Canadian trend, where the public opinion seems to slip more on the right side of the scale. The PQ offers more social-democratic future. The QS also seems to be quite prospective party, as it integrates issues, such as the environment and independence in a more coherent program than the Green party for instance. For many progressive Anglophones, QS might represent the best form of independence for Québec, since it proposes a model more inclusive, where the social project takes more room than the culture or identity.

Quebecers have decided to give a chance to the PQ. In this leftist turn on the political spectrum, the province will probably increase the growing division with the rest of Canada. In the last federal election, Stephen Harper has won a majority, although Québec had voted in one voice for a progressive party, the New Democratic Party of Canada. This left-right division is not new: since the beginning of the Canadian Confederation in 1867, French Canadian public opinion has many times been different, being it the question of the participation in the Boers war, conscription in the First World War or relations with the United States. Now the divide is even more tangible. The abolition of the long gun registry, the withdrawal from the Kyoto Accords, the leaning to a more hard power approach on the international scene and stronger support for Israel are all policy choices extremely unpopular in Québec. What happens then when even if the whole province votes in a different way, a Conservative can still have a majority in Ottawa? The answer will come in the following years, and it will partly rely on Marois’ capacity to reach compromises in order to protect her minority. The findings of the Charbonneau commission might mean the beginning of a dark era for the Liberal party, if it turns out to be as corrupt as suspected. This would give a lot of space for other parties.

So far, the PQ has already kept many of its promises: the day after being sworn in, the government cancelled tuition hikes, abolished Bill-78 by decree, ordered the end of shale-gas extraction, the end to asbestos exports and the closure of Gentilly-2, an aging nuclear power-plant. Every autumn in Québec the maple tree loses its leaves, but this year it finally feels like spring for many.

Notes:

[1] Literally Plan North: a Liberal project of ambitious proportions aimed at opening the north of the province to foreign mining corporations by building government funded roads and railways to make resources accessible. What is subject to controversy is the low tax rates demanded and the fact that there are no guarantees that the raw minerals will be transformed in Québec, minimising the return in terms of jobs and technology.

 [2] The Maple Spring: both a reference to the Arab spring and a play on words: Érable sounding like Arabe, Arab in French.

Author: Christophe-A. Rouleau-Dick, Master’s candidate in International Relations at the Quebec Institute of High International Studies, Laval University

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