Belgium: Elections – Growing polarisation

The results of the Belgian elections underline the political instability which has grown over recent years and which is expressed in a growing number of undecided voters and voters changing the party they vote for. The period of stability with one big bourgeois party, the Flemish Christian democratic CVP, being able to chose its smaller partners (social democrats or liberals) to govern is clearly over.

Geert Cool, Linkse Socialistische Partij/Mouvement pour une Alternative Socialiste, reports on the general election held in Belgium on May 18. CWI online.

Growing polarisation

The instability, with voters switching parties, shows how the old balances are disrupted and also are an expression of the first elements of a political crisis in which no bourgeois party has a guaranteed stable basis in society.

In such a situation the communication strategy and the "image" being given of the party can be a crucial issue. The Flemish social democratic SP.A has been very good at this. While they were responsible for a rightwing policy and have an authoritarian leadership, they managed to put over the image of being a "young" and "fresh" "social" party, utilising both its past as a bourgeois workers’ party and its young political representatives.

The importance of communication also played a role in the serious defeat for the Greens who lost all their Flemish seats and most of their Walloon seats. The Greens, who were in government, were seen as arrogant parties of well-paid people introducing all sort of new anti-social taxes.

A leftwing victory?

The elections took place against the background of the growing economic crisis with announcements of factory closures and a growing unemployment, officially now 11.6%. On the other hand we also saw the massive mobilisations of the anti-war movement.

However large layers of the population have not been active in either the anti-globalisation or the anti-war movements and remain passive. This is expressed in the fact that 70-75% of the voters have chosen to vote for right wing parties (liberals, Christian democrats, nationalists, far-right), while only 25-30% voted for the "left wing" parties (social democrats and greens). All the major parties in Belgium do not cover the whole country, they are based in either Flanders or the Walloon; the LSP/MAS is one united party with different names in the regions.

The electoral growth of the social democrats is an expression of a growing polarisation which is becoming sharper because of the economic crisis and the anti-war movement. However, because of the lack of a strong socialist left wing, voters are turning in the first place to what is seen as an easy alternative: the social democrats. In Flanders the SP.A, in alliance with ‘Spirit’, won 24.3% compared with 16.7% on its own in1999; while in the Walloon area the Parti Socialiste won 36.4% of the vote, up from 29.4%.

Under pressure from this growing polarisation the social democrats needed a social and left rhetoric in the election campaign. Their programme however shows a shift to the right with the announcement of more repression against the unemployed, lower taxes for the bosses and an attempt to reach broader layers of different classes.

The social rhetoric of the social democrats can have a certain success as long as there is no general movement. At times of social problems and movements they however fail to provide answers. This was already clear at the moment when Philips closed its plant in Hasselt, the city where the chair of the Flemish social democrats, Steve Stevaert, is the mayor. Stevaert was surprised by the closure and was not able to give any answer to the workers.


The elections showed a stronger polarisation. On the one hand there are the liberals, openly capitalist bourgeois formations. The two liberal parties, VLD and MR, gained votes as they were able to realise much of their programme like implementing tax cuts partly paid for by the selling off state assets. On the other hand there is the social democracy that gained many votes of those layers who have started to become active.

This result however is certainly not an expression of a turn to the left of the social democrats and it also does not lead to workers becoming more active again inside the social democratic parties. On the contrary, the social democrats rather use their strengthening to become a sort of "more social" bourgeois party like New Labour in Britain or the Democrats in the US.

Those parties who have no clear image on the division between labour and capital lost the elections. Certainly with the Greens this was an important element in their spectacular losses. But also the Christian democratic opposition of the Flemish CD&V and Francophone CDH suffered a defeat losing more votes compared to their already historic 1999 defeat. This will probably lead to discussions in the leadership of the CD&V and its chair, Stefaan Declerck, who even in his hometown Kortrijk lost over 5%.

Inside Agalev (the Flemish Greens) there will be discussions about joining the ‘left alliance’ around Stevaert and the social democrats. The Flemish social democrats were now in alliance with ‘Spirit’, a small grouping of ‘left liberal’ nationalists which came out of the break up of the Flemish nationalist Volksunie.

The defeat for Agalev is historic. They lost 7% and now only had 4%, while there is 5% required to get a seat. They not only lost all their national MP’s, but also the money they received for having a parliamentary representation. They now already announced they have to sell their national office and sack 47 of their 84 national full timer workers. On top of that their position in the regional Flemish government is seriously weakened. They remain in this government but their two Ministers will be replaced.

The crisis has led to pressure on the Flemish Greens to join the alliance around the social democrats. Jacinta De Roeck, a former Green MP from Limburg, already said they should have joined the alliance before the elections. To reward her, Steve Stevaert raised the idea to co-opt De Roeck in the Senate (all parties can co-opt a small number of unelected MPs). Stevaert is also more and more using the "social progressive alternative", the second name for the SPA, instead of ‘Socialist Party – Different’ label they adopted as a first step towards dropping any reference to "Socialism".

The end of the growth of the Vlaams Blok?

In Antwerp most attention went to the fact that Vlaams Blok with its 30% did less well than with the council elections of 2000. In Gent the Vlaams Blok lost 1.5% compared to 1999. It however would be wrong to think that their growth is coming to an end as they reach a "sociological maximum". While the press remained very silent about this, these elections were a new "Black Sunday" (referring to their 1991 electoral breakthrough) with a strong growth of the Vlaams Blok to give them 18.1% of the vote in Flanders, 2.7% higher than in 1999.

An important new element in the past period was that most people are now looking at the Vlaams Blok as a normal political party, an image that was strengthened by the media where the Blok could appear on all television programs as any other party. The party leadership tries to present their party as more "decent". This has an impact outside the big cities where they gained a lot of votes. On the other hand it probably also played a minor role in the big cities of Gent and Antwerp where they rather get votes on an anti-establishment ticket.

In this election campaign the populist element of the Blok certainly was stronger. On the other hand the neo-fascist elements of the Vlaams Blok are still strongly present. That was for example reflected in the violence against some LSP members in Dilbeek and Zoersel. There also was Wim Verreycken, a Vlaams Blok MP, saying on national television: "400,000 unemployed, 500,000 immigrants: the solution is easy". That could pass without any critical comment in the press!

At the same time in the Walloon area the National Front (FN) gained, increasing their share from 4.1% to 5.6%, especially in the area around Charleroi where unemployment is running at around 35%.

Government in period of crisis

The second government of Guy Verhofstadt (leader of Flemish liberal VLD) will have to deal with the growing economic crisis leaving them with no choice but to attack the workers. Like in almost all the other European countries there will be discussions about the pensions, unemployment benefits, social security etc. With a forecast economic growth of at most 0.75% in 2003 the government won’t be able to create new jobs.

This will have an impact on the government, especially after the regional elections scheduled for 2004. The government will try to wait with its unpopular measures until after those elections, but they will have to confront the economic reality of this system.

Socialists in the elections

At the moment there is no big leftwing force that can present itself as an alternative. Despite this we decided to stand in the elections to be able to give a voice to those people who are convinced of the need of a real leftwing opposition. We didn’t participate with illusions in spectacular results and rather tried to reach a broader layer with clear socialist ideas to strengthen our socialist alternative.

The elections were for two houses: an upper house (Senate) elected on two national lists: a Dutch-speaking list for the northern Flanders area and a French-speaking list for the southern Walloon area, with a possibility to chose between both lists in Brussels. The lower house (Chamber) is elected on the basis of 11 provincial lists.

We had a list for the Senate in Flanders and for the Chamber in the province of East Flanders. In Brussels, Liège and Hainaut, predominately French speaking areas, we had candidates on open provincial lists of the Communist Party.

With our list for the Senate we received 8,337 votes (0.2%). For the Chamber in Eastern Flanders we got 2,930 votes (0.3%). The Communist Party in Brussels, Liège and Hainaut lost a lot of votes mainly to the fact that they are not active apart from election campaigns. We however mainly wanted to have candidates on their lists to be able to have an election campaign in Francophone areas where we currently do not have sufficient forces to stand on our own. Our 7 candidates had good personal results and more importantly we now have a possibility to build a new branch in Mons (Hainaut) and new supporters in several other Walloon cities.

It was a rather short election campaign for us as we had used our whole force to strengthen the anti-war movement. We however did spread thousands of leaflets and posters and received good responses to our material. While we had much less resources and certainly a lot less press attention, we got half of the number of votes of the list Resist (a coalition of the stalinist PVDA and the Arab-nationalist Arab European League). Compared to their 1999 result, when they stood on their own, the PVDA lost a third of their votes and now scored 0.4% in Flanders.

In our campaign the main slogan was: "Jobs, services, peace for everyone" with slogans on all these three elements. This was very different from all other parties who ran very apolitical campaigns reducing their posters to smiling faces with empty slogans.

With our campaign we reached a layer of conscious people and won support. We got many emails from people who either wanted to vote for us or who had voted for us, congratulating us for our ideas. On that basis we can build a stronger force that raises the need for a new mass workers’ party and the need to break with the present capitalist system.

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May 2003