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From: The Socialist issue 733, 12 September 2012: Build a 24-hour general strike

Search site for keywords: Quebec - Student - Students

Quebec Solidaire's electoral gains show potential for left

Bruno-Pierre Guillette , (Alternative Socialiste - CWI Quebec) and Joshua Koritz (Socialist Alternative, CWI in the US)

On 4 September, Quebec voters elected the Parti Québecois (PQ) to lead a minority government, with Pauline Marois as the first female prime minister in Quebec's history.

On the heels of the mass student strikes, PQ was always likely to win as it promised to scrap the hated "law 78" - an unprecedented set of repressive measures brought about by the outgoing Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ) government to confront the student strike - and to freeze the PLQ's tuition fees hike.

Pre-election polls had predicted a tight race between the PQ, the ruling PLQ and the 'Coalition Avenir Québec' (CAQ), a new centre-right party formed by the merger of Action Démocratique du Québec and the forces around the anti-corruption figure, François Legault.

The surprise of the elections, however, was the strength of the PLQ, which won only four fewer seats than the PQ, and received 31.2% of the vote as compared to the PQ's 31.9%. The failure of the PQ to provide a clear alternative road to the PLQ's pro-business policies prevented a more decisive victory for this party.

Despite this, the hated outgoing prime minister, Jean Charest, the principal opponent of the student movement, lost his seat.

CAQ received 27.1% of the vote, but only won 19 seats. This was a disappointment to the CAQ who hoped to capitalise on its anti-corruption credentials. Its leader, François Legault, exposed PLQ ministers awarding contracts to mafia-controlled firms in return for campaign contributions.

The small left party, Québec Solidaire (QS), was the only party in the elections which took up the demands of the student movement, including prominent demands for not just reversing tuition fee hikes, but for free higher education.

QS gained an additional member of the Quebec parliament going from one deputy to two, and doubled its share of total votes from 3.3% in 2008 to 6% this year.

Due to its support among the student movement it made large gains, coming in second or third place in several districts. Significantly, the party has also doubled its membership in the last period, with around 13,000 now in its ranks.

PLQ, the traditional conservative party of Quebec, ran on its record of imposing austerity and refusing to give an inch in its struggle with the students over tuition fee hikes, presenting itself as the defender of "social peace" and against "the power of the street".

PQ, the main party of the Quebec sovereignty movement, made sympathetic overtures towards the student movement but was clear in its support for austerity and tuition fee hikes.

The tacit support it got from the main trade union federations, as well as from the two most moderate students associations, has, however, enabled it to boost its supposed 'leftist' credentials in the eyes of some working class and student voters.

CAQ, which is openly hostile to the trade unions, had campaigned with the slogan: "It's enough, we need change". But declared it would use the police to force students back to class if necessary.

Student movement

These elections, marked by smaller political formations making significant electoral breakthroughs, showed growing cracks within the two-party political system.

This system has traditionally dominated Quebec politics since the 1970s - with the two main pro-capitalist parties, the PQ and the PLQ, alternating in power. The erosion of support for these two parties, and the growth of support for QS in particular, reflect the rising openness for a left challenge to the status quo.

These elections took place in the wake of the student strike movement which ended just before the elections as student associations voted one by one to return to classes. The strike movement began on 13 February and lasted through August, including demonstrations as large as 400,000.

Struggling also against the draconian "law 78", the student movement lost momentum over the summer, slowly losing steam while continuing nightly "casseroles" (demonstrations where people bang pots and pans). By the time the election was called, students and the larger working class had grown tired of continual struggle.

The right wing of the student movement, represented by the leadership of the Fédération Étudiante Collégiale du Québec, argued within the movement for a "truce" and threw its support behind its traditional allies, the PQ.

Classe, the largest and most radical of the student associations, was split between an abstention trend, which argued that the solutions for the movement could not be found in elections and that they should be ignored, and supporters of QS who largely did not press the debate.

As a result, the Classe leadership largely ignored the elections and simply called for the struggle to continue, as it crumbled beneath their feet.

Post elections

The electoral success of Québec Solidaire clearly expresses the shift to the left within an important layer of young people in the course of the past months, and shows a hint of the potential for the building of a mass party arguing for a socialist alternative to the present crisis.

The momentum of QS' success should be used as a springboard to start a militant, grassroots campaign within working class communities and towards the trade unions, in response to the ongoing bosses' offensive, but also against the austerity attacks that will inevitably come under the PQ's rule. QS should also articulate demands for the trade unions to break with the PQ.

The PLQ and CAQ together have more seats than the PQ and could theoretically form a coalition government. If moves are made in that direction, this would likely cause a new round of elections to be called in the spring, as such a coalition would be extremely unstable.

The elections were successful for the ruling class in this phase of the struggle against tuition increases.

The students have now returned to class and, due to law 78, are compressing their entire spring semester into the month of September. The PQ has indicated it will repeal the repressive aspects of law 78 and put a freeze on tuition hikes, but has promised to return to the issue of increasing fees.

For now, these elections only represent the end of one chapter of struggle. A new generation of fighters has been emboldened and radicalised through the student mass movement.

The student strikes are a preview to the movements of the larger working class that will shake Quebec society in the months and years to come.