Socialists on the rise, far-right surging as Quebec election heats up

As the traditional parties flounder, Québec solidaire could become the opposition and the far-right could win their first seat
Ethan Cox
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Welcome to the election campaign that no one wanted, and fewer still are following. The outcome is a foregone conclusion — Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government is all but certain to be re-elected with a robust majority — but beneath the surface some interesting things are happening in Quebec.

A longer term realignment away from the province’s traditional parties (Liberals, Parti Québécois) and towards the new kids on the block (CAQ, Québec solidaire, and now the Parti conservateur du Québec) continues apace. For decades, our politics were defined by the sovereignty debate. This realignment is now bringing us back to a more traditional left-right axis.

We’re watching what may be the last gasps of the two parties who have taken turns running this province since the 1960s.

While the other parties draw most of their voters from either the federalist or sovereigntist side of that debate, the CAQ, and to a lesser extent QS, have succeeded in attracting support from both camps. That’s clearly a recipe for success in this brave new world of Quebec politics.

Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, we’re watching what may be the last gasps of the two parties who have taken turns running this province since the 1960s. The latest Leger poll has the CAQ leading at 36 per cent, followed by a dead heat at 16 per cent between QS, the Liberals, and Quebec’s far-right Conservative Party, with the PQ a handful of points back of the pack.

On the eve of today’s final televised leaders debate, a new Segma poll shows Quebec solidaire in second place for the first time in the party’s history, while a Mainstreet poll released yesterday put the Conservatives in a surprising second place with 20 per cent support. If that number is confirmed by other pollsters, we may be seeing a late surge for the far-right party that could lead it to its first seat(s) in the National Assembly.

Amidst some disagreement between pollsters, projections show an increasingly tight race for official opposition. But despite the apparent closeness of the race for second place, these are parties going in radically different directions.

A last gasp for the old parties

In last week’s debate, PQ leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon exceeded expectations, making a passionate last stand for his fifth-place party. He also insisted on saying the N-word (within the title of a classic Quebec book), and unsuccessfully demanded that other candidates say it as well. The theatrics bought him a couple points in post debate polls, but are ultimately unlikely to help his party win more than a single seat. Call it a dead cat bounce for a party that has been all but replaced by a more socialist and less racist alternative.

Across the aisle, Liberal leader (and former CAQ party president) Dominique Anglade’s tepid performance in that debate did nothing to arrest her party’s slide, and Montreal newspapers are now speculating about how quickly she’ll resign following the election. Racism and sexism have certainly cost her support, and helped shape media coverage, but her lack of traction in the most diverse parts of Montreal indicates a deeper issue. It remains to be seen whether she can even hold onto her own seat — a Liberal stronghold in west Montreal.

[Premier Legault] scrambled around like a chicken with its head cut off for most of the pandemic, careening between contradictory policies like a teenager unleashed on a bumper car ride for the first time.

But the fault isn’t really with either of these two leaders. Quebeckers are just bone-weary of the parties they represent.

Are these old parties well and truly dead, or merely hibernating? It’s hard to say for sure, but one thing is clear: they’re going nowhere fast in this campaign.

Quebec election results from 1993 to 2018, showing the decline of the Liberals and PQ and rise of the CAQ and QS. Legend: Liberals are red, PQ light blue, CAQ dark blue and QS orange.
Wikipedia

New parties rising

On the other side of the ledger, we have several newer parties on the rise. Chief among them is of course the CAQ, a party left for dead in the aftermath of the 2014 campaign that came roaring back to win in 2018.

A faux populist and loyal lapdog of big business, premier Legault rode to success in the last election on the strength of being neither the PQ nor the Liberals at a time when the province wanted nothing so much as to break free from decades of two-party rule.

The former PQ cabinet minister then scrambled around like a chicken with its head cut off for most of the pandemic, careening between contradictory policies like a teenager unleashed on a bumper car ride for the first time. It was an exercise in giving the business community whatever it wanted, even at the cost of people’s lives, while tossing fig leaves at the rest of us. Apparently, it worked.

The clown car driven by failed Rebel News correspondent Éric Duhaime (aka the Conservative Party of Quebec) ... is more like a dollar store knock-off, rather than a genuine local version of Trumpism.

On the left, Quebec solidaire has improved its percentage of the vote and number of seats in each election it has contested, and has yet to lose a seat it holds. If only young Quebecers voted, QS co-leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois would be premier. Polls also show that he is the most popular opposition leader in Quebec, and regarded as the winner of last week’s debate. Nadeau-Dubois’ argument that they are the real alternative to the CAQ has gained credence as the campaign unfolds and the Liberals flounder, and the solidaires are no doubt hoping the final seat count positions them as the government in waiting.

Party of Rebel News reject leans into Darth Vader aesthetic
Ethan Cox

Meanwhile, the clown car driven by failed Rebel News correspondent Éric Duhaime (aka the Conservative Party of Quebec) is riding the same wave of anger and resentment that has buoyed the fortunes of the far right in the United States and across Europe. But this is more like a dollar store knock-off, rather than a genuine local version of Trumpism.

The menacing MAGA wannabes (who leaned all the way into the fascist aesthetic with their Darth Vader-themed posters) are polling high but are projected to win zero seats. That could change, as they have shown some signs of real momentum in this campaign. With a little luck, they could pick up a handful of seats from the CAQ in Quebec City alone. But for now their support appears too spread out and inefficient to lead to many victories.

Consider them a stormfront massing on the horizon.

The party of social movements

Quebec solidaire has always been the party of the student strike. In 2012 when hundreds of thousands of students walked out, supported by close to half the population, QS recognized the moment and threw everything they had behind the students.

It wasn’t much. They were a small party, with co-leader Amir Khadir holding their only seat in the heart of the young and radical Plateau district. A place where residents organized on the block level to support the strike, and set up roadblocks to keep cops off their streets. Their efforts didn’t go unnoticed, and as the strike led into that fall’s election campaign, QS signs became a common sight at student protests.

The strategic vote for students at the time was the PQ, and they helped deliver that party a victory over premier Jean Charest — public enemy number one for the strikers. QS had their hearts, but in the end that only delivered one additional seat, as QS co-leader Françoise David joined Khadir in the National Assembly.

But it sure paid off in the long run.

In the years since QS has elected a spokesperson for that strike as co-leader (Nadeau-Dubois), and slowly spread out from its base on the Plateau, more than tripling its seat count in 2018. It won six seats in Montreal’s east end, two more in normally right-leaning Quebec City, and additional seats in Sherbrooke and Rouyn-Noranda-Témiscamingue (the party’s first victory in Quebec’s regions).

Widely seen as poorly-camouflaged racism, the [religious symbols ban] targets religious minorities and makes them choose between symbols of their faith and full participation in Quebec society.

Now, it is threatening a number of western and northern Montreal seats, once seen as impenetrable Liberal fortresses. The party has released polls showing it is leading in Verdun (where 2012 strike veteran and party president Alejandra Zaga-Mendez is polling ahead of Liberal incumbent Isabelle Melançon), and Maurice-Richard (where human rights activist Haroun Bouazzi and CAQ candidate Audrey Murray are fighting for the traditionally Liberal seat).

Meanwhile Guillaume Cliche-Rivard, an immigration lawyer and refugee advocate, is threatening to knock off Liberal Leader Anglade in the west Montreal Liberal stronghold of Saint-Henri-Saint-Anne. Cree activist and columnist Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash, daughter of former NDP MP Romeo Saganash, is threatening another Liberal seat in the Northern Quebec riding of Ungava. If she wins, she will become the first Indigenous woman ever elected to Quebec’s National Assembly.

QS is the only party to have translated their electoral platform into seven Indigenous languages.

Defining their identity

For years, Quebec solidaire had a problem that halted its advance into the western parts of Montreal. And it isn’t what you might think.

For most young anglophones and allophones the party’s support for sovereignty has never been a deal breaker. ‘We’ll vote how we see fit in an eventual referendum,’ goes the line of thought, ‘but in the meantime we want socialist policies.’ If those come from a sovereigntist party, then that’s who many will vote for. As with most Quebecers these days, sovereignty is not a top-of-mind issue.

But for many, support for the previous PQ government’s ban on religious symbols was a dealbreaker. Widely seen as poorly-camouflaged racism, the policy targets religious minorities and makes them choose between symbols of their faith and full participation in Quebec society.

QS never supported the ban, but they did waffle somewhat in their opposition, until a deciding vote at a party congress in 2019 to oppose all restrictions on religious symbols. The party has also taken a strong stance on the existence of systemic racism, challenging premier Legault’s contention that it does not exist in Quebec.

One columnist recently suggested that these positions represent a fatal error, imposing a hard ceiling of 15 per cent on the party’s support because they leave QS out of step with Quebec society.

On the contrary, it is these principled positions that have allowed QS to consolidate the youth vote among Quebecers of all backgrounds, and will allow it to build on that support in each election to come. The party isn’t perfect, and its caveat-laced support for Bill 96 (which would tighten eligibility to English schools, and make life harder for immigrants) has rubbed many the wrong way. There is work yet to be done for the party to win over anglophone and allophone communities.

But as you watch election results on October 3, don’t be too saddened by the victory of the uber-capitalist CAQ, or the advances of the far-right clown brigade.

An unabashedly socialist party is on the rise in Quebec, led by young people and veterans of Canada’s largest and most successful social movement. In time it may moderate like the wishy-washy NDP sections that exist in many provinces, but for now it is the most radically socialist major political party in North America.

And it just might be the government-in-waiting when the dust settles next month.

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