“In politics, the victories are never as bright as you would like. We must make do. But for the moment, we should not be embarrassed to say that we won: the [tuition] increase will be set aside, Bill 12 also… and Jean Charest has resigned.” – Former CLASSE co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois

There is so much to say about last night’s election, it’s hard to know where to begin. Before the results had sunk in came news of a tragic shooting at the PQ’s Metropolis party. A clearly deranged man, wearing a bathrobe and shouting, in French, about Anglos waking up, took the life of one man, and left another in hospital. Our thoughts go out to the victims and their families, and, as always, we wonder how a non-automatic AK-47 could possibly be legal. But enough ink has been spilled on the act of a lone maniac, so I’ll stick to the election.

The king is dead

After nine years in power, and twenty eight representing Sherbrooke, first as a Progressive Conservative MP, and then as Liberal MNA, Jean Charest has left politics. His government reduced to official opposition, and his own seat humiliatingly lost to the PQ, Charest resigned this afternoon in a tearful press conference. He came out feisty last night, leading some to speculate he might remain as Liberal leader, but clearly thought better of it overnight.

When Charest’s political obituary is written, I believe it will read that he was the man who didn’t know when to quit. High on hubris and believing his own hype, Charest went all in on a summer election. He no doubt believed that his skill on the campaign trail, and well honed message of fear and division, would be enough to return him to power. 

He lost that gamble, but I would argue that it was an earlier wager which truly sunk him. He bet the province on the so-called “silent majority” who opposed the student strike. He sought to play himself off as a strong man, resolutely defending law and order against the chaos of “the street”. He enacted Law 12, the most draconian assault on civil liberties this province has seen since the dark days of Duplessis, and set an election amidst the backdrop of the early return to classes it mandated. 

He sought to use the students as a political prop, to sow fear in the population for which he was the only solution. Most in the media were only too happy to go along with this narrative, suggesting that the students and their demands would be a toxic albatross around the neck of PQ leader Pauline Marois. 

Students refused to take his bait, with most voting to suspend their strike until the results of the election were known. And despite the supposed toxicity of the student movement, when the PQ pulled out all the stops in the campaign’s last week to beg Quebeckers to deliver them a majority government, the rationale they provided in full page newspaper ads, subway panels and elsewhere was that only a PQ majority could succeed in canceling the tuition hikes and repealing Law 12. 

The students, victorious

Far from a political liability, or an electoral afterthought, the student strike and social movement it sparked proved decisive in this campaign. After nine years in power the Charest government was tired, wracked by scandal and giving off an inescapable odour of corruption. But governments led by less able campaigners, and lacking the gift of the sovereignty bogeyman, have survived far worse. 

As we have seen with the Harper government in Ottawa, persistent scandals barely register on the radar of most voters. For a government to be booted from office, people need a spark. Something which crystallizes their unease and turns it into full blown opposition. In this campaign, that spark was the student movement. 

They succeeded in casting Charest and his government as out of touch, and contemptuous of a large swath of the population. With Law 12, Charest overreached. His hubris got the better of him, as it has so often in this last year, and he resolutely insisted that the “silent majority” supported his iron fist, even as polls revealed roughly sixty percent of the population opposed the special law. 

The largest rally of the election campaign, by a country mile, was the roughly 100,000 who took to the streets on August 22 to demand Charest’s ouster. The students succeeded in crystallizing opposition to so many aspects of the Liberal record, and uniting them in a single message: Charest, Dehors!

As Nadeau-Dubois said, this is no absolute victory. Indeed those are a rare thing in politics. But the resume of the longest student strike in Canadian history, and the social movement which blossomed around it, is clear. Two education ministers, a Premier and a government defeated. The tuition hikes and Law 12 set to be repealed. It’s hard to interpret that as anything less than a sweeping victory for the students and their allies. 

Their work is far from complete, and we remain far from the truly progressive society they have been fighting for, but the social movement should take a moment today to pat itself on the back. Tomorrow, and in the days to come, you can rest assured it will return. The strike will likely remain suspended, unless Marois breaks her promises, but this movement has gotten a taste of the immense power ordinary people have when they work together. If there is one enduring legacy of this year’s events, which far outstrips fleeting victory over Charest, it is the awakening of an entire generation. They know what they want, they know they can win, and our society for decades to come will be shaped by the veterans of this struggle. 

The future, uncertain

For a fleeting moment last night at the Quebec Solidaire victory party, it appeared as if the possibility of a PQ minority, with QS holding the balance of power, was tantalizingly close. Those hopes were quickly dashed, and we are left with a weak PQ minority that will doubtless have difficulty governing. 

Unable to pass legislation, even with the support of QS’ two MNAs, the PQ may look to form a pact of some sort with the third place Coalition Avenir Quebec. I’m not sure the term strange bedfellows even begins to cover that scenario, although I can see the two parties working together to repeal Law 12, given that the CAQ’s Legault promised to repeal parts of it on the campaign trail. The tuition hikes, for the record, can be repealed by ministerial order. 

Another possibility is that the PQ minority will be brought down, and a governing coalition formed between the Liberals and CAQ. Although there is a lot of common ground between the parties ideologically, there’s also an awful lot of bad blood, and it’s hard to imagine Jacques Duchesneau, for example, agreeing to govern with the Liberals. 

Given that the PQ are nine seats short of a majority, seven if you assume cooperation with QS, it seems unlikely that they will find enough floor crossers to cobble together a majority. 

As vulnerable as this PQ minority is, it is unlikely to be taken down immediately. The Liberals, leaderless and about to be publicly flayed at the Charbonneau Commission, will be in no hurry to spark another election. 

For my money this government will hang in for a year, maybe two at the outside. Even with a majority, there was little prospect of a referendum the PQ knew they would lose. Now, there is none. 

A bittersweet night for Quebec Solidaire

I attended the QS victory party last night, and it was a fascinating experience. Deliriously happy in the early going as co-spokespersons Amir Khadir and Françoise David racked up big leads and were quickly declared elected, the crowd also lustily cheered each time Charest was shown trailing in his riding of Sherbrooke, and repeatedly broke into staples of the street protests, such as “Charest, get out, go find a job up north!” (A reference to a silly joke he made that protesting students should seek employment under his Plan Nord.) 

For a brief period, it appeared as if the PQ might form a slim majority which could be propped up by QS, a dream scenario for supporters of the upstart party. People across the room could be heard calling out to each other, “two more!”, “One more!” in reference to the number of QS or PQ seats needed to reach the magic number of sixty three. 

As the PQ total dropped, and tight races in Saint-Marie-Saint-Jacques and Laurier-Dorion slipped out of reach for QS, a malaise of sorts settled over the crowd. Happy, no doubt, at having doubled their seat total and electing co-spokesperson David. But the victories in Mercier and Gouin were expected, taken for granted even, and this crowd wanted more. They wanted three seats at least, if not four, and were bitterly disappointed by their share of the popular vote, which hovered around 6 percent. 

So it was a victory for QS, no doubt. They improved their share of the popular vote by two percent over the 2008 election, and doubled their seat count. But they came agonizingly close to so much more.

Follow me on twitter @EthanCoxMTL for regular coverage of Quebec politics