Quebec Election 2014: What the Heck Happened, and What Does It Mean for the Left?

The conservative turn of the PQ

First, the defeat of the PQ must be carefully analyzed. To understand what happened during this election, we need to go back to 2007. At that time, the PQ suffered its second-worst electoral score since 1972. It became the third party, behind the right-wing populist ADQ, which is now integrated into the CAQ. This period was also marked by the Bouchard-Taylor commission and the racist furore whipped up around “reasonable accommodation” for Muslims. The “problems” of integration of immigrants of colour were widely debated in the media and a wave of openly xenophobic and racist comments swept through the mainstream media. In order to take advantage of this situation and win back ADQ voters, the PQ turned its sovereigntist project towards a conservative approach of nationalism. This was more clearly oriented towards French-speaking white Quebecers, and it tried to capitalize on the fear that immigrants of colour could pose a threat to Quebec’s culture.

By the end of the third mandate of Charest’s Liberals in 2011, the PQ’s strategy had yet to work. The Liberals were unpopular, but the PQ was unable to take the lead in the polls. It was only when the student strike started that things changed. In 2012, the PQ realigned its strategy by focusing on a left-wing program that integrated most of the demands of the social movements: a moratorium on fracking shale gas, a tuition freeze, revoking Bill 78 (the anti-protest law passed to try to break the student strike), lowering electricity rates, and cancelling the annual “health care tax” levy that Quebec residents must pay. When the Liberals called an election in August 2012 — a move calculated to ending the student strike — the PQ managed to win by a small margin.

18 months in office

In the first days of its mandate, the PQ was quick to apply the parts of its program corresponding to the demands of recent social movements, especially the moratorium on shale gas and going back on the tuition increase. But when it came to other parts of their program, like re-establishing a tax on capital ownership to abolish the “health care tax,” the party encountered strong resistance from right-wing groups and representatives of the capitalist class. With a weak mandate and looking for a way to increase their support and eventually secure a majority, the PQ decided to realign its strategy. As in 2007, they tried to target the electoral base of the right-wing populist CAQ. This is how we can explain the obsession of Pauline Marois’s government with bringing down the deficit, going back on most of its left-wing promises and, especially, its proposed Charter of Quebec Values.

When polls showed significant support for the Charter, the PQ decided make it a wedge issue to mobilize its electoral base. They stretched the debate on this project for almost 8 months to polarize the population and strengthen their support. The result of such a long debate focused on the supposed threat immigration poses to Quebec’s way of life was disastrous: xenophobia and racism became commonplace in the media and in the streets, especially against Muslims and Jews.

Nevertheless, this strategy seemed to work for PQ. Support for the party grew as much as support for CAQ fell. The specific way the electoral map is configured in Quebec could ensure a majority for the PQ even if it had only a small number of votes more than the Liberals, so long as CAQ’s support was low. That is exactly the situation showed by polls in mid-February. So the PQ called an election.

Explaining the PQ’s defeat

The first major shift in the campaign was the arrival of Pierre-Karl Péladeau, son of Pierre Péladeau and owner of Quebecor Media and Sun Media, as a star candidate for the PQ. Nicknamed PKP, this eminent member of Quebec’s capitalist class is renowned for his ruthlessness during collective bargaining with his employees and his aggressive maneuvers against small businesses. By welcoming such a person in its ranks, the PQ was deliberately moving to the right side. The anti-neoliberal pro-independence party Quebec Solidaire (QS) quickly launched an aggressive communications offensive in order to convince progressives to quit the PQ. This revealed the weakness of the PQ’s left wing. To stop the bleeding, many prominent sovereigntists (such as Gérald Larose, ex-president of the CSN labour federation) defended the arrival of PKP by noting the importance such a recruit could have for the credibility of the sovereigntist option. PKP’s own initial speech clearly stated that he was there to make Quebec into an independent country. PKP’s arrival forced the PQ to talk about Quebec separation, which it had not foreseen.

However, this was a dangerous game for the PQ. Since the 1995 referendum, the party has seldom talked about Article 1 of its program, which proclaims support for a sovereign Quebec. The polls on the question show stable but weak support for Quebec independence: under 40% since 2006, around 30-35% in recent months. A large part of the population is very allergic to the idea of a third referendum.

The poor election result of the PQ can be explained by three factors. First of all, the possibility of a third referendum turned away some supporters of the Charter of Values and mobilized federalists to vote for the Liberals in order to block the PQ. But the refusal of the PQ to clearly campaign on the subject failed to mobilize sovereigntists. Second, the question of the Charter was not as central as expected by the PQ, partly because it was in the shadow of the referendum. However, many communities were already very mobilized to block this proposal that fuelled racism in the province. Third, the U-turn of the PQ on its left-wing agenda and the arrival of PKP contributed to pushing away progressives and unionists.

A comparison with the 2012 election results gives a good portrait of the campaign:

Party                   2012                                            2014

PQ :                 1 390 000 votes, 54 MNAs         1 075 000 votes, 30 MNAs

PLQ (Liberals):    1 360 000 votes, 50 MNAs         1 760 000 votes, 70 MNAs

CAQ (ex-ADQ):   1 180 000 votes, 19 MNAs          975 000 votes, 22 MNAs

QS :                 260 000 votes, 2 MNAs              320 000 votes, 3 MNAs

A quick look at the electoral results in terms of the total number of votes is helpful to understand what really happened. We can see that despite the fact the CAQ won in more electoral districts, its popular support dropped during the campaign. As for the PQ, its support dropped even lower than during the 2007 election. Overall, this election at least sends a strong message against populist, right-wing policies that fuel racism.

A step forward for QS

This election will be remembered not only for the omnipresent Charter of Values and the much-trumpeted threat of a third referendum but also for what was missing. The traditional themes of the left — education, redistribution of wealth and the environment — were no-shows for both televised debates and much of the campaign. QS was ignored by the media. By comparison, the CAQ often dominated headlines, even when they were almost tied with QS in national polls. QS’s campaign bus was famously mocked for being almost empty.

In this difficult context, it’s a wonder QS managed not only to increase its overall support, but also to elect a third MNA. Manon Massé beat her Liberal opponent by a small margin in the Montreal constituency of Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques. While this result is not the wave many had hoped for, it still strengthens QS for years to come, guaranteeing higher state funding and a stronger parliamentary presence. A renowned community organizer and one of the key women involved in the foundation of the World March of Women, Massé is identified with the left of the party, and her arrival in the National Assembly bodes well for the continuation of the role played by QS since its foundation: a strong, though not socialist, loudspeaker for progressive ideas.

QS ran on three themes: a plan to reduce Quebec’s dependence on oil, fairer social policies and an inclusive plan for Quebec independence. While QS had space to voice strong ideas on the two first issues, it was surprisingly clear on independence, managing to challenge the PQ’s monopoly on sovereignty and linguistic issues. As a bid to woo disenfranchised sovereigntists, it was not entirely a success. For instance, Manon Massé’s support rose by 1200 votes over 2012, while the PQ candidate lost 2600 votes. As a way to re-engineer the project of an independent country, the move is ambitious. Interestingly, prominent anglophones came out in support of QS’s demand for a Constituent Assembly that would determine Quebec’s political status. The renewed focus of the party might also spell the end for PQ breakaway Option Nationale, whose support fell beneath 1%.

It should also be noted PKP’s surprise candidacy fostered much anger in organized labour. While the leaderships of Quebec’s three union centrals have seldom strayed from the PQ, in spite of the party’s record of attacks on workers’ rights when in government, the fact that one of the worst employers in the province was now being heralded as the PQ’s saviour was hard to swallow. It provided an opportunity for more progressive bodies within organized labour to denounce the PQ and support QS or some of its candidates. The Montreal councils of the CSN and the Quebec Federation of Labour were among those defying the absurd call of the social democratic nationalists of Syndicalistes et Progressistes pour un Québec libre for sovereigntists to unite in the party of Pierre Karl Péladeau.

Looking ahead

Looking back, the election was indeed a referendum of a kind. The results of April 7 can only be interpreted as a strong backlash against the PQ. The Liberals didn’t win thanks to a particularly strong platform, or running a great campaign — in fact, their integrity, or lack thereof, was heavily featured in the second part of the election. They won by default, a small consolation for what will be four difficult years. The population may not fully endorse their policies, but the party of Bill 78 can count on the legitimacy afforded by a strong majority to continue the neoliberal “cultural revolution” started under Jean Charest’s leadership.

While they might retain some of the PQ’s pacifying policies, including the indexation of tuition, one sector to watch is healthcare. Quebec’s clinics and hospitals already suffer from the worst privatization in Canada. Couillard’s own coziness with the private healthcare lobby — two months after resigning from government in 2008, he joined a private health investment fund — and the presence of the former president of the Quebec association of specialist physicians, Géatan Barrette, in his cabinet, will accelerate lean management reforms and prioritize doctors over other healthcare practitioners.

However, the return of the Liberals might also prove to be an opportunity for social movements. Historically, the close relationship between the PQ and the institutional left, including labour and student federations, made it difficult to count on their mobilization. The last 18 months provided ample evidence of this toxic relationship, from the Summit on Higher Education to the strike in the construction sector ended by PQ back-to-work legislation. The election of a staunchly neoliberal party to majority government means even stronger attacks on the working and middle classes; it could also lead to a left-right polarization on social and economic issues, rather than the murky waters of identity. In that respect, the rounds of collective bargaining in the public sector in 2015 might be an opportunity for renewed mobilization in the labour movement. The planned offensive by the ASSÉ student federation for free higher education will be similarly bolstered.

Three factors might come into play to define the next electoral struggle. QS is at a crossroads: it must make full use of the next four years to build a stronger base, particularly outside of Montreal and on campuses, and renew its main leaders.  An opportunity might also present itself in the form of the struggle for the PQ’s leadership. If the PQ come to the wrong conclusions and choose Bernard Drainville, the father of the Charter of Values, , or Pierre Karl Péladeau, they will leave the left-leaning electorate behind. QS would then have to find a balance between staying true to its program and welcoming new supporters. The arrival of Tom Muclair’s vanity project, NDP-Quebec, might also reshuffle the cards if the federal party maintains its presence in Quebec past the 2015 federal election.

The dramatic downfall of the PQ marks the end of a cycle begun in the mid-2000s. As Quebec enters a new political balance, the next four years will be crucial.

Jérémie Bédard-Wien is the coordinator of PSAC 17601 and a former student movement spokersperson. Disclaimer: he worked on Québec Solidaire’s communications team for the 2014 elections.

Alain Savard is a member of the executive of PSAC Local 10721. He was not involved in the campaign and he is not a member of a political party.

Both writers are members of the Front d’Action Socialiste, a socialist organization that will publically launch in Montreal on May 1 (visit for more information).