Quebec Voters Reject the Parti Québécois and Elect a Liberal Government

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Yesterday, readers mentioned this wonderful artwork[1] from 2012’s Printemps érable in Montreal[1]. And today we have election results from Quebec.[2] The Real News Network interviews Leo Panitch, Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy and a distinguished research professor of political science at York University in Toronto. Here’s the video:

When I lived in Quebec, I thought separatism as advocated by the Parti Québécois (PQ) was madness, because I was invested with the idea that Federalism can support a mosaic of cultures; but now that Harper and the Canadian Conservatives are busily turning Canada into a reactionary petro-state — for which 47 Quebeckers paid with their lives in the Lac-Mégantic oil train explosion — I’m not so sure. Be that as it may, today’s electoral developments in Quebec are entertaining and interesting, both electorally and as partisan politics.

First, a once-progressive[3] party, the PQ, was punished for cynically pretending they were still progressive while at the same time moving right. (It never does to project one’s own electoral politic onto another country, but still; does that sound familiar?)

[PANITCH:] [T]he Parti Québécois got wiped. … [T]he choice that voters had was between that party moving rapidly to the right–as you mentioned in your intro, by making a star candidate P. K. Péladeau, who is Quebec’s most prominent media tycoon, the head of Quebecor, the head of the second-largest newspaper chain in Canada, Sun Media, the owner of the largest cable television network in Quebec. And they thought they were going to be able to get people to vote for them by presenting themselves as having capital on their side.

This blew up in their faces. [Péladeau] had been extremely anti-union, famous for his lockouts of workers. And the notion that the Parti Québécois was so cynical as to put forward someone like that as their candidate to make Quebec separatism respectable amongst capitalists blew up in their faces. And it was a remarkable development in that sense.

Two of the leaders of the student protests ran as Parti Québécois candidates, and they showed themselves [incompr.] like to be opportunists in doing so. [I believe the French word for schadenfreude is… schadenfreude.] … And I think this can be seen as a rebuke to cynical politicians like Pauline Marois, who put on a little red flannel badge, which is a sign of support for the students, when their campaign was going on, joined them in the streets, but then, when she was in, turned her back on what they were standing for.

Second, the party voted in, the Quebec Liberals, necessarily has a weak mandate, because it’s corrupt. (Ditto.)

PERIES: So, Leo, let’s talk about who won. Philippe Couillard, Liberal Party, won big, gaining twenty seats, and a total of 70 seats. And this was a party that was just ruling just before the Parti Québécois was in power.

PANITCH: Yes, and with a very corrupt record, and with an inquiry going on, an official inquiry going on, which was suspended for the election campaign, into all kinds of corruption. The corrupt contracts that the government was engaged in letting in exchange for kickbacks to politicians or to the Liberal Party. And this is likely to resurface.

So Couillard himself, indeed, was doing some business with the head of the Montreal Hospital, who turned out to be accused of very corrupt practices. But this turned out not to harm him, because of the way the PQ could have conducted this campaign so badly.

It will be interesting to see what happens when the offical inquiry resumes!

Third, a good deal of the voting was strategic.

[PANITCH:] [T]he PQ also tried to follow the root of the French right, the French nationalists, in introducing what is known as a secular charter. There was a fear, especially on the part of rural Quebeckers, about immigrants, especially about Muslim immigrants, but not only. There’s a constant fear in Quebec that Quebeckers, who have a low birth rate, will be overwhelmed by people who’d rather be speaking English in the sea of Anglophone North America.

But there was also an element of fear of women with chadors and so on. And the PQ thought that they’d play a smart one and introduce this charter, the secular charter, which would prohibit people who work in the public sector–in hospitals, schools, as well as in government offices–from wearing any religious symbol, which included even a yarmulke, a skullcap that Jews wear, but also included any other garb, including chadors that women wear and so on. And this showed some popularity in rural areas. But, again, it blew up in their faces in the campaign. Quebeckers are not, for the most part, an intolerant people, and they were not prepared, I think, to accept this. Of course, it led, moreover, for a great many people who were from other parts of the world and now live in Montreal and elsewhere who previously, for social justice reasons, might have voted for the PQ, to switch their vote, and to switch their vote in such a way as to ensure they got defeated, which meant rather than voting for Québec Solidaire, they voted–held their noses, no doubt, but voted for the Liberal Party.

Fourth, there are signs of hope for an emergent party to break the PQ/Quebec Liberal duopoly.

[PANITCH:] This does lay the basis for, I think, the growing support for a more substantial independence party, but one that is closer to being socialist. They don’t quite use the term, but they use the term social justice. And this is Québec Solidaire. They had two seats before the recent election. They gained an additional one. All of them are in central Montreal, in the poorer working-class districts of Montreal, all three of them.[4] They are definitely on the left.
And people who supported the Parti Québécois till now, having some substantive social justice reasons for doing so, are now likely to turn to the Québec Solidaire Party. [I think the bulk of the activists in the great student protests in Quebec from just over a year ago would have been in favor of the Québec Solidaire.] And we may, in that sense, be seeing the end of Quebec politics being defined in terms of who’s for or against staying in Canada, above all, and being defined much more clearly in terms of who’s in favor of a socially just Quebec and who’s in favor of kissing the butt of the capitalists, which the PQ, unfortunately, has moved towards being alongside the Liberal Party. …

So, a sophisticated, engaged electorate is doing interesting things. But then, with the round bacon they’ve got to cope with up there, sophisticated and engaged is just what they’d have to be.

* * *

Basically, I’m just arguing for a watching brief, here; this post is background. The Printemps érable came out of nowhere and was very creative in its methods and achieved some results. All it takes — one hopes — is a single tear in the painted canvas of our Potemkin village for the wind to tear the entire fabric and carry the whole flimsy structure away.


[1] The artworK scrolls horizontally. For whatever reason, swiping works on the iPad but dragging no longer works on my laptop. YMMV!

[2] Canada counts paper ballots by hand in public: The gold standard, because the likelihood of corruption is far less than with the electronic voting machines we in the United States use. All the ballots are counted in one night.

[3] OK, OK, I know “progressive” doesn’t really mean anything any more, but you know what I mean. Panitch comments:

Quebec society has been the most left-wing in Canada since the 1960s, having been the most traditional and patriarchal and religious-dominated until them. But Quebec went through a quiet revolution, as it’s called, in the 1960s. The Parti Québécois came out of that with a kind of a left and progressive project of an independent Quebec state, but their main politics were always nationalist, and they, you know, historically, although the unions have been affiliated with that party, have often engaged in a repression of public-sector trade unionism themselves. So they were hoping, as most nationalists do, to create this impression of a cross-class alliance…

[4] Canada has a “first past the post” system, so Québec Solidaire would have had to have won a majority in those districts.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Martin_leV

    I have a slightly different take on the election, and you did not touch a very important story about the Parti Quebecois, and that’s the story about the baby boomers — or the lack of uptake of the sovereignty project from Gen X and Gen Y. That’s fine, since I haven’t read much about that narrative in the English language press, but the french language press has been gnashing their teeth about that for the past few years. (One of the advantages of being a Francophone living outside of Quebec is having access to the news in both languages)

  2. Brian Romanchuk

    Another thing that has to be kept in mind about Québec is that we have a considerably higher income tax rate than the rest of North America. There is a combined value-added tax of 14% or so, and the top marginal tax rate is about 55% at about $140,000 of income (it starts at around 40%).

    Realistically speaking, higher taxes would just drive retirees into other provinces. There are French-speaking areas along the borders, so even that is not that big a problem. The upshot is that raising taxes is not a burning issue, and this puts a limit on the economic debate.

  3. tiger

    Québec Solidaire. They had two seats before the recent election. They gained an additional one. All of them are in central Montreal, in the poorer working-class districts of Montreal, all three of them.[4]

    That’s not true at all. Only one out of three is working class. The other two, including where i live, are full of yuppies and students and people from france and artists. Here rents are expensive. It’s not a crappy hood.

    I’m very disappointed to hear people say the the PQ “moved right” when if fact they simply moved ugly. They went to a big corporation owner who is not nice. There’s a difference between being on the right vs left and taking care of the people vs corporations. This blog is written by people smart enough to know that the only way to win is yo unite good people from both left and ones with mixed opinions

    1. Inverness

      Yes, you’re right. The riding which includes the Plateau was a win for Manon Massé of Québec Solidaire, and is no longer working-class.

  4. PaulW

    Thank you for mentioning Lac-Megantic – the perfect example of how doing business is all that matters, even at the risk to human life. Where I live trains pass through the heart of the town every day. We’ve had two derailments in the last ten years. Fortunately nothing really bad was on board. One happened a five minute walk from my home but, more importantly, occurred right in front of an apartment building. Yet try pointing out to people the madness of shipping freight through urban areas. Even around here they just don’t get it. The “it’s how we have to do business and there’s no other options” argument. In the 19th century we blasted our way through the Rockies to create a trans continental railway. Yet today we can’t build new tracks to bypass towns? I can understand people in the business not wanting that. But average people who stand to gain nothing financially and even have trains running through their backyards! It’s like Lac-Megantic never happened. Truly a waste of lives when we learn absolutely nothing from it.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      We have oil trains heading north through my town more than once a day.

      If you walk across the railroad bridge over the river near my house, you can see the scars on the ties from past derailments. So, an accident waiting to happen.

  5. PaulW

    I’ve the greatest respect for Quebec voters – the only province to ever hold a referendum in my life time. What a referendum in a democracy!!!! Won’t that cost too much money? In voting BQ and then NDP the last election Quebeckers showed they aren’t afraid of change. Quite in contrast to Ontario voters who give a reform party calling itself Conservative a majority government and, even worse, seem to think they’re in a time warp and voting for Bill Davis’s Red Tories.

    If the day ever comes for Quebec to separate, I’ll wish them all the luck in the world.

      1. sleepy

        As was mentioned in a link here yesterday, financially Quebec would have a hard go of it with the banksters:

        I suspect that in the unlikely event that Quebec left, the rest of Canada would still make a go of it, with some sort of restructured local control with more autonomy for provincial governments at the insistence of Alberta and others, though as always I suspect international finance would dictate much of the outcome and swoop in to pick the bones of whatever sort of Canada resurfaces.

        And there are also the concerns of the First Nations who have treaties with the Crown, not with Quebec, and who have threatened to break away from Quebec in the event of independence.

        1. Moneta

          In the unlikely event Quebec chose to separate, yes the banksters would hit hard but the whole situation would get VERY messy VERY fast and the ROC would not be spared… all Qc has to do is say is that it won’t pay its share of the debt and we’ll see how intl markets treat the CAD.

          Anyways, the separation issue is not mainstream right now, politicians are the only ones talking about it… there is currently too much wealth effect from home equity in Qc for nationalism to build up right now… it will only come back when the financial situation drastically deteriorates and they realize they have been had by banksters in Toronto and politicians in Ottawa.

    1. Inverness

      A separate Quebec would need serious luck. Look at Montreal’s famously crumbling infrastructure. I would be the first to understand why anyone would protest Harper’s Canada — but please be aware that on a municipal and provincial level, Quebec is doing quite badly.

      Montreal and Laval’s last to mayors were forced out of office — one in handcuffs. There are roads and bridges that are falling apart…really, all of this separatist talk is just a way to divert attention away from the sad reality that Quebec has the nation’s highest unemployment rate, and young people (francophones and anglophones alike) are leaving.

      It’s easy for people outside of the province to romanticize Quebec, and I don’t blame them. But there are little options for progressives, outside of voting for separatist parties (Québec Solidaire is, indeed, a separatist party). And the Parti Québecois thoroughly disgraced itself by encouraging xenophobia and ignoring issues that matter most: creating new jobs.

      1. Moneta

        The Champlain bridge is crumbling… but I would like to remind everyone that it’s federal failure because the St-Laurent is a federal waterway… one more reason for Qc to be pissed.

        Montreal corruption is somewhat legendary but the mega mergers did not help… Toronto is also having its own issues with Ford.

        I moved out of Montreal 5 years ago in part because of rampant materialism… the kind where everyone wants luxury cars and houses, lower taxes and then complains about infra. The 7$ dollar a day daycare system and real estate bubble have given a lot of discretionary spending power to Gen-X and Gen-Y over the last decade. But I have to say that I am not impressed with bland suburban big box spread à la US in the ROC… which I have to admit has also been quite pervasive in Qc.

        1. Moneta

          Did I forget to mention that Ontario will have to replace 1/3 of its power generation over the next little while… the ROC loves to deride Qc without realizing they have similar issues in their own backyard.

        2. sleepy

          This is not meant as a knock on Montreal at all, but I was there for a few days a couple of years ago and in some bad ways, it reminded me of certain large down on their heels cities in the US rust belt, moreso than other Canadian cities I’ve been to, and I’ve been to most, although I’m sure there are others.

          Culturally of course it is entirely different, and overall a nice place to visit.

    2. Paul Jackson

      Of course I don’t know how old you are, but you are referring to the Quebec referendum in 1995. In 1992, all of Canada was called to a referendum on the Charlottetown Accord.

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