Belgium: Local elections

National government’s defeat hidden by media!

The Belgian October 8 local council elections showed some important trends. The winners were the opposition Christian Democrats and the extreme right, in both the Flemish and French speaking sides of the country. Most parties in the Federal and regional governments, especially the Liberals, did badly. Last year’s widely supported general strikes and mass protests showed how unpopular their policies are. The Liberals and the Greens lost heavily in most of the cities. The SP.a, the Flemish social democrats, went forward strongly in some big cities, especially in Antwerp, where they overtook the extreme right Vlaams Belang as the biggest party. But an important fact in Antwerp is that the SP.a/Spirit alliance did not take a single seat away from the Vlaams Belang; its gains came from its own former coalition partners. The PS, the French speaking social democrats, was the biggest looser in the Walloon, especially where the party was involved in housing scheme scandals and where the extreme right was able to present a list. But the PS remained the biggest party in the Walloon with a majority in almost 50% of the electoral districts.

Back to the “good old days” of stable Christian democracy?

The CD&V (Flemish Christian democrats) regained the majority of Flemish cities and again won more than 30% of the Flemish vote. This has brought a bit of an euphoric mood back amongst their own ranks. It is 20 years ago since they last had such a victory. However in the medium and big cities they were mainly beaten by the social democrats. Also the CDH (French speaking Christian democracy) can call itself a winner is these elections. This party had its own “orange explosion” and conquered 10 extra electoral districts than in the 2004 regional elections.

Does this means going back to the “good old times”, when their stable basis in all layers in society meant that a coalition without the Christian democrats was not possible? Not really! During recent years all the big traditional parties have lost weight in society. The traditional vote for the one or other of the long-established “pillars” has been replaced by voter’s “shopping” between different parties. This is especially true as voting is compulsory in Belgian elections, so there is no option of staying at home and not voting at all. This “shopping” is an expression of a loss in authority for all traditional parties, none of which can count anymore on a stable base.

What else can you expect from election campaigns that are brilliant in saying nothing at all? The difference is made in the amount of “creativity” used, because the main parties’ political programmes are very close to each other. The vote for the Christian democrats was mainly a reaction to the instability (or a demand for more stability), which was characteristic of the “red-blue” (social democrat- Liberal) government.

The loss of authority is also expressed by the drive of the different parties to make ruling coalitions as broad as possible, even if smaller coalitions are technically feasible. On the French speaking side for example we saw a number of “mayor’s lists”, lists putting together candidates from different parties. It is another example of the power sharing principle, no matter with whom it is, as a way for the traditional parties to be assured of a large majority, a broad foundation, to carry through neo-liberal policies. These unprincipled manoeuvres explain the big blow the Greens got, as in the past more was expected from them.

The CD&V had better not count too much on political stability. Part of their traditional base is the ACV, the Christian trade union centre that is also the largest union in the Flemish area. Last year this trade union “pillar” had to pay strike pay for 325,000 days to its members as 285,000 of them participated in strikes. Half these strikes were against the Federal Government’s generation pact, a pact that was not going far enough as far as the CD&V leaders were concerned! Notwithstanding paying strike the ACV leaders took a very dubious attitude to these protests that led to a rebellion in quite a few ACV branches.

While it is true that the “kartel” (alliance) that the CD&V made with the N-VA (a right wing leftover from a split in the Flemish Nationalist Party) was for both of them a win-win situation, we must ask the question how long this will stay so? The CD&V’s Flemish nationalism can become a real disintegrating force for the Flemish Christian democracy. With a big majority amongst small Flemish bosses in favour of more Flemish independence, this pressure will continue. However this attitude conflicts with that amongst the basis of the unions, partly as it goes against the objective needs of the working class. The last thing the working class needs in its struggle against the attacks on living standards is further divisions along nationalist lines.

The end of ‘red-blue’ or its rebirth?

Red-blue (the coalition between the social democrats and liberals) lost these elections. In Flanders it lost its majority. The VLD (Flemish Liberals of Federal prime minister Verhofstadt) could only convince 16% of the electorate. On the French speaking side the Liberal MR and the PS would, on the basis of these elections, only have a 3 seat majority in the 2007 federal elections.

However this defeat is being hidden. This all has to do with the victory of red-blue in Gent and of Janssens (the SP.a mayor) in Antwerp.

In the Central and Borgerhout districts of Antwerp and in Gent the Vlaams Belang went backwards. The Vlaams Belang could not repeat its record 24.1% of the Flemish vote it received in the 2004 regional elections. This time it got 21.5% on the Flemish level, a loss of 2,6% points. On the surface it appears that “a strong SP.a can stop the VB going forward”. Instead of being one of the reasons for the original rise of extreme right, the SP.a is now presented as the saver! In Antwerp, a strong mayor, Patrick Janssens, is the saviour, a dam against the VB. The same status is given to Frank Beke, the former popular mayor of Gent, also SP.a, and now to his new successor Daniel Termont. This man does not represent ordinary people, he has the highest number of paid jobs as a council representative on different private sector company boards of any local politician! But we are told the VB is going backward in Gent, losing two seats! This has not been seen since the 1991 start of the VB’s electoral rise.

But what is the reality? In comparison with the last council elections in 2000 the Vlaams Belang is moving forward with 6.6% points. They presented lists in one third more cities and pushed up their number of council seats from 459 to 794, which only can advance their potential for a broader rooted party. In that sense the triumphalism of the anti-Vlaams Belang forces is totally misplaced.

In the PR campaign of “Patrick”, the SP.a was able to present the Antwerp elections as a duel between Patrick and Filip (Filip Dewinter, the strong man in the VB). Patrick won. Patrick Jansens got something more then 70,000 preferential votes, Filip Dewinter a bit more then 60,000. The party of Janssens (in kartel with Spirit – a leftwing leftover from a split in the Flemish Nationalist Party) goes forward with a 16% point increase and becomes immediately the biggest party in Antwerp. This may be followed with a growth in the number of passive SP.a members. In the campaign though, the mayor could not even find 50 people to drive around on a bike to make campaign for him in the streets.

Naturally there is big relief amongst many in Antwerp. The Vlaams Belang is no longer the biggest party. In reality though not a single seat is taken away from the VB. As Dewinter presented it: “the SP.a cannibalised it’s own coalition partners”. The VLD lost 5 seats, Groen! (the greens) 4 and the CD&V 1. The SP.a won 10 with a monster score of 35%.

Different reasons can be given, but not “good governance” as is often said. There was not “good governance” for everybody, especially not working people, or unemployed or sick or pensioners. What is meant by the way with “good governance”? It is for mainly meant as a technical term. The De Tijd newspaper explained it as follows: “with less means, doing more”. Local councils are being compared with private enterprises and have to perform well. The workers of the very well performing Agfa Gevaert knows what this means: in this company 900 people are going to be put on the dole. This is what is called being “efficient”.

We see that the projects for city renovation, presented as another example of “good governance”, were mainly in the interest of the middle class. They regained part of the city centre on the back of the army of poor who had lived in these ignored neighbourhoods for years and amongst whom the VB developed its first electoral support in the 1980s and 1990s. The social composition changed in certain neighbourhoods because the poor were pushed out! This explains the better scores of SP.a, the champion of the middle class and of the city renovation. If this would be in the interest of all, including working class people, then we would support city renovation. But because of rising house prices the poor are prised out in neighbourhoods as Borgerhout and Antwerp centre, and that is where the VB lost votes.

Furthermore the fact that voting rights have been given for the first time to “non-Belgians”, played a role in the good votes for SP.a (who had a lot of immigrant candidates on their lists) and the pushing back of VB in some areas. The enlargement of the democratic rights speaks clearly against an undemocratic party as the VB. But not one seat is won back from the VB! On the contrary, in the province of Antwerp they went forward. While the VB did not win an absolute majority in any Antwerp district, something that had been expected, they win important gains in other areas. In Hoboken, Deurne and Merksem they reach beyond the 40% and thereby probably condemned the other parties to form monster coalitions, which will be immediately an important test for the PVDA, a long established Maoist party that ran PVDA+ lists in these elections.

The tripling of seats for PVDA

These elections will be seen by leftwing people as giving a temporary electoral boost to the PVDA as it tripled its seats from 5 to 15. In Zelzate (a small city near to Gent) they got almost 22%. However the fact that 11 of the 15 seats were won by their “doctors of the people” explains a lot. The “doctors of the people” are a cheap medical service that the PVDA has organised for a number of years. In Zelzate this “giving of services” goes further. The PVDA campaigns for and organises youth facilities, against paid parking, etc. all of which clearly convinced people to vote for them. Also in these areas they are alone as a left opposition in a neo-liberal desert.

These results illustrate the big potential that exists for a new workers’ party, that could make the difference in practice. A new workers’ party could get the same kind of score in the whole of Belgium. It is one thing to get 1,800 votes in a city of Zelzate, it is something else to repeat that score on a national level. The PVDA’s scores, even if they could be repeated in the next national elections, will not be enough. This underlines the importance of the Committee for Another Politics (CAP), the initiative set up by former SP parliamentarian Jef Sleeckx and others.

What will PVDA now do in Hoboken where its votes are necessary to stop the VB running the council? Sharing power with the neo-liberal parties means political suicide. Staying out of a coalition, but without having clear arguments against the parties opposing the VB, will have the same effect. What is needed is a strategy to weaken the VB. A constructive opposition, in which the only measures are supported by the PVDA+ councillors are those in the interests of the working class and their families, is the only option to be able to construct a left opposition. We would support the PVDA+ in doing that.

The conclusion from these elections is that, this time, the vote for the “lesser evil” has again played in the advantage of the Flemish social democrats. While being in the federal government the most stable force pushing a neo-liberal agenda, they were able to present the different “reforms” as a necessary evil to safeguard our social security system. As the opposition is mainly a rightwing opposition they still can get away with it and indeed are seen as the lesser evil.

These council elections were not mainly a test for national parties, but really for local figures, which can give a bit of a wrong picture. The SP.a mayors who stood in Ostend, Antwerp and Gent for example were able to bring some money with them for the city, for city marketing, and are attracting a layer who are better off back to live in the cities again. But following this road will not offer a solution, on the contrary. “Patrick” will be forced to justify itself for the continuation of a policy that is only to satisfy the interests of the middle layers and the big bourgeoisie. The continuation of the growth of poverty, selling out of our services, loss of good and well paid jobs, will further prepare the ground for the extreme right. This was the basis for the VB’s original surge in support. The only barrier against the extreme right that gives a chance to succeed is a dam against that kind of politics. The need for a left opposition in the form of a new workers’ party is again showed clearly with these elections.

LSP/MAS election campaign

LSP/MAS participated in 8 cities, amongst them the four biggest. Our main goal though was to make known the CAP initiative and the national conference it has called for October 28th to build a new force to the left of social democracy, a new workers’ party. As one journalist in a French speaking paper put it: “the lists of MAS are more concerned about the date of the 28th then about the date of the elections, the 8th”. As the LSP/MAS’s resources are limited we chose to prioritise our support for this important initiative that has developed since last year’s mass movement against the “generation pact”.

Our results were not bad given the circumstances. In total our lists got some 3,000 votes. We got good reactions in terms of paper sales and people interested in joining us. Therefore we could strengthen our forces and make our party ready for coming events. The first one is the October 28th CAP conference, followed by the 2007 general elections. Given the instability of the federal government, it is not sure if the elections will be held as forecast next June. It is possible we will have early elections next year in March. Hopefully in those elections it will be possible to stand lists in the name of the new movement.

But, as not all forces in the initiative are clear about what should be its aims and orientation, the perspectives for this new initiative are not sure. The existence of a broad, fighting working class party could change the political landscape completely and finally start to give a perspective and hope to working class people for another kind of politics, one in the interests of us all, and not in the interests of a few rich. In this new formation, LSP/MAS will fight for build a workers’ party that clearly fights neo-liberalism and, at the same time, strive to gain support for a socialist programme!

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