July 25, 2012

Looming election challenge in Quebec

Yaba daba doo! says one caption of this photo on the internet, which pictures Quebec Premier Jean Charest 

By Johan Boyden, Montreal
An earlier version of this article appeared in People's Voice Newspaper.

The community of Trois Pistoles along the northern banks of the St. Lawrence river is known for its picturesque beauty and historic links to Basque whalers, who travelled there hundreds of years ago from Spain.

Now it has become a symbol of the pre‑election polarization and fear‑mongering going on in Québec.

An ecological festival in the town, put on by community activists including some who have been fighting high‑risk shale gas development in the region, wanted to invite student leaders to speak at their event.

A storm of controversy erupted. Mayor Jean‑Pierre Rioux met with organizers and threatened to withdraw all funding. "Around here, people think that [student leader] Gabriel Nadeau‑Dubois is [...] like Maurice `Mom' Boucher" one festival organizer said.

Mom Boucher is, of course, the convicted rapist, drug dealer and murderer who leads the Montreal Hells Angels.

Québec's governing Liberal Party is expected to announce a provincial election, likely on September 4th (just before the return of the anti‑corruption commission that has implicated the party with Mafia kick‑backs through the construction industry).

While the province has been shaken by months of student protest that have witnessed a strong public outpouring of support for the students, particularly in working class Montreal communities, Québec elections are not held on the basis of proportional representation.

Instead, the riding system, divided along regional, economic and national lines, can craftily distort public opinion. Not to mention that elections are a multi‑million dollar horse race today.

Even though they have a nationalist wing, the Liberals are the only clearly federalist party on the political map. Going into the race they are "guaranteed" almost all the ridings in Montreal's West Island, where the Anglo minority will not consider a party leaning towards independence (or any other forms of sovereignty that could be guaranteed in a new democratic Constitution).

Of course, the unexpected can happen ‑ like the turn to the NDP by Québec voters in the last federal election. But that phenomenon was much more about a strategy to block the Harper Tories than a re‑evaluation of the national question.

Many commentators say the outcome hangs on ten or maybe just six ridings where the Liberals won by a whisker ‑ sometimes by a lead of one percent and less than a hundred votes. The Minister of Education has said she will not seek re‑election, no doubt expecting she would lose.

One hope of the Liberals is that the ultra‑right Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) party will to cut into the votes of the pro‑corporate Parti Québécois (PQ). The CAQ's big idea is to put aside the "divisive" national question for several years and unite the right (federalist and nationalist alike, under a populist framework) to attack labour and social programmes -- an approach which has shown to be a clear "basis of unity" for cooperation with the Liberal government's anti-people attacks in the National Assembly.

Because of their links to the Quebec nationalist movement, the CAQ also pose little threat to the Liberal's voting base who view them with hesitancy. As if to confirm suspicions, the CAQ booted a right-wing businessman from its candidate list after he said the Quebec nationalist movement was racist against immigrants. 

The big Liberal guns are, therefore, turning to take aim at the PQ. One black-and-white attack ad -- already viral -- presents the leader of that party in slow motion, banging on a casserole, although Pauline Marois has officially put away her red square.

Some compare this ballot choice to the frying pan and the fire. The Communist Party of Québec is supporting the left-coalition party Québec Solidaire.

Low voter turnout will also help the Liberals, who are counting on their "law and order" or "strong leadership in a crisis" message.
Even the government`s own arms‑length Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission recently condemned the special law forcing the return of students to class this month, saying it was a violation of the fundamental freedoms safeguarded by the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. But Law 78 was always an election strategy, and there is a real danger it may bear fruit.

Which brings us back to communities like Trois Pistoles, where the militant CLASSE student union is compared to organized crime.

The CLASSE has been running a tour across Québec promoting their manifesto for democracy (see page 6), and weaving together the struggles of the people within the framework of defeating the Liberals. On July 22, CLASSE organized another mass demonstration, estimated at between 30,000 and 80,000 in size. (That same day, police arrested the two spokespeople of a student mobilization in Ottawa, including a member of the Young Communist League.)

The Liberals have asked the Director General of elections to investigate the students in case they are making election expenses.

The other two student federations have targeted specific ridings, basically advocating for the PQ. The past‑president of the college student federation will be a PQ candidate.

The election will be a challenge for the people's movements. There is a need to continue the mobilization in the streets while not falling into the "anti‑politics" trap of pretending the vote does not exist. Whatever the outcome, it should not be seen as a blank cheque for any party. This was the message delivered at a summer BBQ discussion organized by the Young Communist League of Québec (LJC‑Q) in late July.

The meeting heard a report‑back on a very successful ten campus tour in Ontario by Québec student activists including the leader of the LJC‑Q, Marianne Breton Fontaine, organized by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) Ontario. People chuckled when they learnt the National Post had labelled the tour a vector of the Québec protest "virus."

The tour was a concrete expression of solidarity by the CFS towards the Québec students. About a thousand students came out in total between Ottawa and Windsor.

Breton Fontaine will also be a candidate for Québec Solidaire in the Montreal riding of Acadie.

In addition to its own platform (which includes the elimination of tuition fees, public pharmacare, nationalization of energy, pay equity, and other demands) Québec Solidaire has responded to a call for a united front against the Liberals with their own two‑point proposal for an alliance: proportional representation and, basically, the abolition of the last austerity budget. Since this is also, on paper, the existing policy of the PQ, it could be the basis for a coalition or accord, but this is just speculation and the PQ have, so far, ignored the offer.

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