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Quebec election 2022: can the left grow?

Chantal Sundaram

September 20, 2022
Four years ago, Quebec’s party of the left, Quebec solidaire (QS), made a huge breakthroughin the Quebec elections. The upcoming Quebec election of October 3 of this year will test the strength of that breakthrough. 
Founded twelve years earlier as a party that aimed to be a “party of the ballot box and party of the street” by giving voice to social justice movements in the National Assembly, it succeeded in electing 10 MNAs in 2018 and the next spring became recognized as the official “second opposition.”
And now QS has launched a campaign that is striking a chord. The major themes of the campaign platform are the climate crisis, the affordable housing crisis, and the cost of living crisis. But demands around healthcare and affordable public transit are big at the local level. 
In an early September poll that asked who would make the best next leader of Quebec, current leader Francois Legault was still out in front but next, ahead of any of the traditional parties, was Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, co-spokesperson for QS, and famous in Quebec as a leader of the 2012 Maple Spring student strike that brought down a government and overturned both government policy on tuition and a retrograde law on the right to protest. He was widely regarded as the winner of the TVA debate of September 15, getting top scores from political pundits including Thomas Mulcair. 
But there are also questions about how he and the party may be repositioning itself to make gains in this election, despite its roots in being a party not just about elections but about giving a voice to social justice movements in the Quebec National Assembly.
The left in this election
QS as a whole has climbed in the polls since the start of the campaign, arriving at 17% by the time of the first candidates’ debate on September 15. At the mid-point in the campaign, QS candidates were ahead in ridings where the party did not have deep roots before in the last election. 
In the riding of Maurice-Richard the leading candidate at the beginning of September was Haroun Bouazzi, a vocal opponent of Islamophobia. In the riding of Verdun, another QS candidate of colour, Alejandra Zaga Mendez, was also leading. And in many other ridings across Quebec, outside of Montreal where the party has had its strongest base, QS is doing better than before.  
This could be a sign that its platform is resonating, or that individual candidates are resonating. But it could indicate something more general.
The 2022 Quebec election is showing much the same pattern as elections in many parts of the world: the centre is collapsing and votes are moving both right and left. In the context of Quebec this means the Liberals and especially the Parti Quebecois (PQ) are losing ground, and polls are seeing growth both for QS and for the explicitly xenophobic Parti Conservateur du Quebec – which like the Tories at the federal level are openly embracing the racist and often far-right politics of the convoy the movement which is using anti-vax and climate-denial politics to promote the influence of the far-right and politics of hate, both in English Canada and Quebec.
But the collapse of the centre doesn’t mean that Liberal support or even PQ support is moving en masse to QS: many are moving to the ruling right-wing CAQ and its slightly softer xenophobic nationalism and pro-market politics.
Challenges for the left
It has been a difficult four years for QS. The 2018 election that propelled it forward also saw a massive victory for the CAQ. The very day after the election CAQ leader Francois Legault announced that he would be introducing a law banning religious symbols in a range of professions including teachers, which less than a year later was passed as the discriminatory Law 21. It targets above all women who wear the Muslim hijab. 
Unfortunately, the left in Quebec has been hampered for years by a false notion of “secularism” and QS also had a very unclear position on the issue. So right on the heels of its breakthrough QS went through a gruelling and intenseinternal debate, and while in the end a clear position against bill 21 won the day overwhelmingly, the internal nature of the debate left the party without the momentum and confidence it needed to take on the issue in society or in a campaign against the law.
Then came the pandemic, and more internal dissent about how to continue the life of QS under the new and difficult conditions. The parliamentary wing of QS argued that the priority was to obey public health orders and therefore not criticize the CAQ, whose popularity grew during the pandemic despite policies like a 7pm curfew that mainly targeted shift workers and homeless people. Francois Legault has continued to position himself as the hero of the pandemic. 
During the height of the quarantine, local QS associations were told not to meet, even virtually, out of respect for emergency public health orders. This made a difficult situation worse when it came to staying in touch with QS members and maintaining an active base of the party outside of the National Assembly. Eventually QS launched a series of theme-based webinars to break the silence, which were well-attended, but some contact with the membership base of the party was hard to recover.
And during the entirety of the last four years there has been ongoing internal debate over who makes decisions for the party: QS was founded as an intensely democratic and member-driven party, which wrote the entirety of its programme collectively over the course of ten years. But a number of decisions made by the parliamentary wing have been challenged by members at the base, and this has been a source of tension. Most recently there was tension from members over the parliamentary wing’s mixed position on Bill 96, a language bill that puts limits on service to new immigrants who can’t access them in French. 
The base of support for Quebec solidaire
Support for QS continues to be young: the party grew massively when Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois (GND), threw his lot in with QS prior to the last election. Membership cards poured in, and the average age of the party plummeted overnight.
In the last election QS targeted the 18-24 year-old demographic, where they were polling highest but also where voting is lowest. The strategy to target university and college campuses continues in this election, with petitioning on the issues that QS is putting forward in this campaign: climate action, cost of living/higher salaries, affordable housing and healthcare. And while its not in the election platform this time, the party programme supports free tuition.
A challenge for QS since its founding has been to win unions away from their historic ties to the PQ, which in its beginnings in the 70s masqueraded as some kind of social democratic or labour party, which it never was. It was always a party of big business just like the Liberals, the party its founders came from.
In the last election, no union central came out in direct support of QS (or in support of any party). But in 2018 both the Montreal council of the Confederation des syndicats nationaux (CSN), a major public sector union federation, and the regional council of the Federation des travailleurs et travailleuses (FTQ), a major public and private federation, found a way around this: they gave support to individual candidates who were trade unionists. This ended up including many QS candidates. In this election, not only has no union body at any level of the CSN or FTQ taken any formal or public position whatsoever for any party, they also have not endorsed individual candidates as they did in 2018.
This election will be an indication of the possibilities to build the left and push back the right. And yet, it will also be a test for the best way for a party of the ballot and street to position itself.
Growth of the right
Electorally, the CAQ is the main enemy to the right of centre, and that is where QS is aiming its fire. But the victory of the CAQ has fostered the growth of the Quebec Tories on an explicitly xenophobic basis, and whether or not they pose a real electoral threat, they pose a political threat. Too many far right parties around the world have been allowed to grow through elections because of the failures of the left. 
GND has had a number of moments in the media denouncing the other parties’ xenophobic stance on immigration, and this is very important. But this is an issue that continues to provide a worrying context to the election.
And there are other issues at stake: the CAQ is still posing as the hero of the pandemic while promoting private healthcare as the solution to the emergency room crisis. At the same time the Quebec Tories have reinvented themselves as populist right-wing talk radio supporters of anti-vax xenophobic convoy politics.
And above all the question that looms large is how to fund all the social services that need massive reinvestment, from healthcare to education to daycare. Taxing the rich was an open part of the QS election campaign last time and remains something that distinguishes them in this campaign. This above all unites both the traditional and new right parties against them.
The ballot and the street 
Ultimately social change doesn’t happen at the ballot box. But parties that pledge to bring the issues raised by social movements to the electoral realm have a role to play in shaping ideas at election time - one of the few times the mass of the population is asked to make political choices.
QS is one of many such parties that have tried to create an electoral space to the left of traditional social democratic parties. The party is feeling the inevitable tension between the pull of electoralism and the need for social change to come from beyond the ballot. 
But in this election, if QS succeeds in growing in both seats and the popular vote, it will be good news for progressive movements and bad news for the right.
And at the same time, this election coincides with what promises to be a massive demonstration in Quebec against climate chaos on September 23. The challenge for QS is to connect with that movement and others like it in a way that does not just channel it towards votes but towards creating more space for the left to grow in Quebec.   
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