Belgium: A call for an alternative – the CAP’s first the election campaign

June 10 will see the first election outing for the Committee for Different Politics (CAP) when it stands in the Belgian general election for both the federal Senate and Chamber.

The CAP was launched last year by many activists who finally had enough of the neo-liberal policies of the old Flemish and Francophone social democratic parties (SP.a and PS) who have both been in federal coalitions since 1988. The CAP’s first conference took place in October last year, exactly a year after the mass protests and two one day general strikes in 2005 against the outgoing government’s so- called "Generation Pact".

CAP collected the necessary 10,000 voters’ signatures (5,000 Flemish and 5,000 French speaking), which assured its participation in the elections for the Senate in the whole country. The CAP also has election lists for the Chamber seats in all Flemish provinces, in the French speaking districts of Liège and Hainaut and in the bilingual district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde.

There are in Belgium however more obstacles to get representatives in parliament – the high number of voters’ signatures need to first get on the ballot being a piece of cake compared to the fact that you need 5% all over to get someone elected, or the very big electoral districts, or the enormous amount of money spent by the established parties. Plus the CAP is not a party as yet and is still in the stage of constructing itself. The chances of getting someone elected this June are, to put it gently, minimal.

The Belgian election system has been adapted over the last decade to favour big parties and alliances (called "cartels"). Small parties that have ministers in the federal government would not be sure to even be elected if they were not in cartels with big parties. Thus the Flemish nationalist and conservative NVA is in a cartel with the CD&V Christian-democrats in the Flemish government while the also Flemish nationalist Spirit, describing itself as left liberal, is in a cartel with the social-democrats. In 2003 the Flemish Green party (then Agalev, now Groen) lost heavily in the elections and went straight from being in the federal government coalition (where they ironically voted in favour of the changes favouring bigger parties) to having no representatives at all in the Chamber.

An election campaign to build a new force

The main reason why CAP is participating is to build both itself and support for its message that it is high time to put an end to the neo-liberal politics of all the established parties. It will be on the basis of the outcome of this campaign – votes, but also new members, money raised, support in all possible forms – that CAP will decide whether or not to turn itself into a party and organise a founding party congress.

About 250 people attended the last national conference of CAP on April 14th. This saw a second discussion on its election programme, resulting in the approval of the main election leaflet, containing the demands it sees as central. The whole programme – worked on by a programme commission on the basis of a whole number of amendments by individuals, local or provincial branches and special commissions of CAP members – was accepted as a basis for discussion. The conference agreed that a number of points needed further discussion, mostly those points around which no commissions are active, like the points on the justice programme (an issue being discussed in the media as different parties want a justice reform) and on culture, for instance. While there are not yet CAP party structures that can guarantee democratic discussion and decision making, no decisions are taken without taking the time for proper discussion. These discussions are going to have to be planned after the elections and in the run up to a proper congress.

At this conference time was also taken for the CAP’s election candidates to present themselves. Most important places on the lists are taken by active and well known trade-union activists and shop stewards, joined by people from the student, anti-racist, anti-war, green, anti-globalisation movements and many activists involved in local campaigns.

On the Chamber list in the province of Limburg the first place is taken by Jules D’Oultremont, a former social-democratic mayor of Houthalen-Helchteren, who after a conflict with the SP.a set up a local political movement called Social & Democratic Houthalen-Helchteren. In this region many people who have recently left the SP.a are attracted by the step Jef Sleeckx (an ex-social democratic MP and one of the founding members of CAP) made not just to leave the SP.a, but to build something new.

Many members of LSP/MAS (the CWI in Belgium) will be candidates on the different lists, with Bart Vandersteene being first on the East-Flemish Chamber list, Aischa Paulis second on the French speaking Senate list and Anja Deschoemacker third on the Flemish Senate list.

Social-democratic parties’ token efforts to conciliate trade-union opposition

Jef Sleeckx is an important founding figure for the CAP, well known, often spoken about and, up until recently, frequently asked for interviews in all sorts of media. But the reason why CAP is developing is that the appeal for a "committee for other politics" fell into the fertile soil of trade union opposition to the so-called Generation Pact. In Antwerp trade unionists were making appeals to their leadership to break the bonds with the SP.a, the architect of the Generation Pact. The same process took place in Brussels and Wallonia, less marked however as the French speaking PS usually manages to hide itself behind the government majority, whereas the SP.a is openly and shamelessly neo-liberal.

As the elections came nearer, and the social-democrats want to assure their votes, token efforts were taken to show that SP.a and PS are best friends again with the ABVV/FGTB socialist trade union, something which is "welcomed" by the trade union leadership. The SP.a made a media declaration about wanting to send "workers" into parliament. Here and there some well-known trade-unionists were put on good places on their lists, which will get them almost inevitably elected, notably shop stewards from VW and Ford, both recently touched by massive job losses and a worsening of conditions and wages. The PS gives eligible places to, amongst others, a well known leader of the rail workers’ union and also to important figures coming from the Christian-democratic workers’ movement.

The SP.a and PS election campaigns are the same as usual. Both come with proposals to give higher benefits to the "scandalously low pensions", while they have been in government for the last 20 years and are mainly responsible for the pensions sinking to this all-time low in comparison to average national wealth. Pensions in Belgium are now amongst the lowest in Europe, putting big layers of pensioners under the European poverty line. It is a real scandal, but it’s one of their making! Even more hypocritical are the SP.a proposals to lengthen the right to parental leave to one year, leaving the choice of who takes a career pause to the couple. No mention about the "scandalously low benefits" given for parental leave, time credit or career break, which mean that in most families only mothers (women earning on average 26% less than men) use these possibilities. The same applies to the PS proposal to give rent subsidies to the lower incomes, while during the 20 years they were in government they have seen rent prices going up and they did nothing, their record of investment in social housing being abysmal.

On June 10th lots of workers will however still vote for the social-democratic parties. That will be more the case in Wallonia and Brussels (for PS) than in Flanders. The SP.a has, as the last council elections of 2006 have shown, replaced its former workers’ base by orientating to layers of the middle class and better off workers, mainly in the cities. Then in a number of cities they won good election victories and in the whole Flemish region they are polling around 20% now. The PS however polls around 30% and remains the biggest French speaking party.

Much more than the SP.a the PS needs to show itself as "socialist" to hold on to their electoral results. Hence they have kept their name – Parti Socialiste – whereas the Flemish party changed it to "Social Progressive Alternative". The PS hides consistently behind the Flemish nationalist threats (ranging from more autonomy for the regions to splitting up social security and eventually even Belgium) to impose a neo-liberal policy. Their answer to threats of regionalising labour market policy is to say that they are already "doing well", meaning they have already installed a witch hunt on the unemployed in Wallonia, despite the fact that almost no jobs are available and unemployment is officially at 17%, being over 40% for youth in the worst hit regions and cities. And unfortunately this is true: last year saw, for the first time ever, more Walloon unemployed lose their benefits than in Flanders.

The PS declares openly to be in favour of "the Ostend system" where the unemployment agencies "experimented" with a very close and regular following up of young unemployed. This means stalking young people with daily offers of "jobs", mostly low paid, part time and with temporary contracts, and forcing young people to go to several interim agencies to find casual work. It also means robbing young unemployed of their unemployment benefits if they refuse any kind of job, even if it pays them a salary that is not higher than their benefits.

Struggle of the workers unrepresented

While the capitalist politicians are seen to be bickering in the media in the run up to the elections and the state reform inevitably following it (while also having back room discussions to make sure they are taken into the next winning coalition), strikes and actions break out almost every day. In the public services like the railways, the local transport, the post, spontaneous strikes pop up regularly as conditions have been run down, while the work load and pressure continue to grow in preparation or as result of the liberalisation (and, as workers’ fear, of future privatisation). The situation in some services has become untenable, leading to high rates of mental and psychological unease among workers. None of the existing parties expresses an alternative vision, all parties see it as necessary to "modernise the economy". Workers also see what has happened in privatised companies: the work conditions, wages, company regime etc. have worsened even more in companies like Belgacom (the main telecom company) and the national airport. There is an understanding amongst workers that this is a not the path to go down, the only problem being the trade union leadership refusing to organise this battle on an all-Belgian scale.

The unrest is not only there in public services. It keeps raining job losses in multinational companies. Following the example of VW the bosses of Opel recently announced 1,500 job losses and "possibly worse" as the Opel plant looses an important model and has to "compete" for new models within the multinational company. After letting out the nightmare scenario of losing in total 2,900 jobs (out of about 5,000), with only one smaller Chevrolet model to be made by the Antwerp plant, the bosses are now asking for labour costs to go down (again! – Opel Antwerp is already supposed to be a "model plant" on this field) if the workers want another Chevrolet model and keep the damage down to 1,500 job losses.

This outright blackmail policy of the multinationals, which, together with their subcontractors, are employing the biggest part of private sector workers, and the insufficient answer given to this by politicians and the trade union leadership, are being questioned more and more openly. The situation in Opel, in VW, formerly in Ford and other places show that all the concessions workers have made in the 1980s and 1990s – on pay, on flexibility, on labour costs – have in no way assured work security. The run down just never stops. The results of trade union work based mostly on negotiations with the bosses and political lobby work have left workers unprepared for serious battle to hold on to every job.

The trade union leaderships quite more than their present rank and file, are closely tied to PS/SP.a (for the social-democratic trade union) and CD&V (for the Christian-democratic trade union). These ties have been put under pressure by the right wing policy of the federal "purple" government and by the "turn to the right" of CD&V in the form of the cartel with the conservative and Flemish nationalist NVA. But it will take mass movements and for workers to have a choice before these ties will be broken completely. In the meantime the most active layer of combative trade unionists are more and more on the lookout for a new force, those who have joined the CAP so far have decided they should try and build it.

The CAP intervenes in every conflict in big or small companies and their ideas are greeted with great interest and enthusiasm from the workers and active trade unionists in particular. But it is significant that, as the election came closer, the media’s attention to the CAP went down and CAP is now the only party not being represented in Doe-de-stemtest, the most watched election programme on public television. Clearly this is because the bourgeois do not want Belgium to see the sizeable votes that "left" parties have received in recent elections in its Dutch, French and German neighbours.

Whatever the composition of the next government, workers will need to organise to defend their rights and conditions

The elections will show a lot of workers and youth voting for so-called progressive or "left" parties (social-democracy and greens) as a "lesser evil", in order thus to vote against the right both in its liberal form and in its conservative Christian-democratic form. This is reinforced by the fact that legally everyone has to vote in Belgian elections. In Flanders the existence of Vlaams Belang and the minority position of "the left" are used by the SP.a to push further in the direction of a "useful vote". And if you hear the public declarations of liberals (wanting a "flat tax", a limitation in time of unemployment benefits and an attack on the right to strike by wanting to prohibit "spontaneous strikes" in public services and to impose a minimum service) or Christian-democrats (wanting a harsher Generation Pact and wanting to regionalise at least part of social security to realise the bosses’ programme at least in Flanders alone if they can’t have it nationally), this is a normal reaction. People campaigning for the CAP in these elections need to understand this.

But they should also explain that political life does not stop at elections and that the bosses and their political representatives are still wanting to attack those working class gains such as the automatic wage indexation (already curbed down by introducing a "health index" since the mid-1990s), the central wage negotiations (already hollowed out by the wage norm), the unemployment benefits unlimited in time (already emptied by stricter control and harsher sanctions possibilities), social security as a solidarity system based on contributions on wage to replace it with a welfare system giving benefits only to the poor and needy, paid by tax money. There is no short cut: workers will need to build a new political organisation and a left wing opposition in the trade unions, fighting and organising for combative and democratic trade unions.

The CAP offers this possibility for the first time in many years. Although it is still in its beginnings, its obvious potential is so huge it would be criminal for Marxists not to get involved and try and build it, and this is precisely what the LSP/MAS has been doing. What has driven workers’ conditions down in Belgium has not been the strength of the ruling class, who have and are continuing to have major problems in getting a stable national representation. For example to be able to get to a state reform the next federal government needs a two-thirds parliamentary majority. It is true that in past state reforms they have often got this kind of majority by counting on opposition votes as well. But this time this seems excluded because it would mean soliciting, and in some way buying, the votes of the Vlaams Belang, which would probably vote against or abstain on the proposals because they will necessarily be a compromise.

What can be seen as almost certain, unless the election results make it impossible, is that the ruling class will try and get both big trade unions "represented" in government. Most probably the outgoing coalition will not get enough votes. In Flanders due to the weakness of the SP.a and in Wallonia because of the weakness of CDH, the old French speaking Christian democrats (PSC) now "reformed" in a petit-bourgeois formation having only loose ties both with the Flemish Christian democrats and the Christian democratic workers’ movement.

What is being put forward most by the media at this moment is the perspective of a classical tripartite coalition: Christian democrats, social democrats and liberals. The problem in this is the necessity to make a compromise with six parties (as all parties are split along national lines), which makes this kind of government mostly an instable and short-lived one. But if election results impose it, it is not excluded that they will choose this formula to push through a number of reforms, see it fall before the end of its four year term of office and leave a new government with a "reformed situation" and a clean slate to start from. This would also allow the traditional politicians to try to counter the threat they would face form the fact that growing opposition to such a coalition would strengthen movements like the CAP on the left as well as the extreme right of the Vlaams Belang in Flanders and National Front in Wallonia.

Another possibility could be to take in the power hungry greens. The Flemish greens, Groen, have recently declared themselves ready and wanting to join a government "with democratic forces" (meaning all except the Vlaams Belang) if they get a "climate minister". The French speaking greens have made no declarations, but they are still involved in the regional Brussels and Walloon governments and their manoeuvres in the last council elections – to make and break back door deals and show themselves prepared to every sort of coalition as long as it offers jobs for them – show they have no problems with an unprincipled alliance. A Christian democratic, social democratic and green government would have the extra benefit of keeping one traditional and right wing party, the liberals, in opposition next to the Vlaams Blok in Flanders.

The time of strong "all powerful" governments is over, as all bourgeois parties are discredited and mistrusted by the population and no clear leader holds out much longer than a few years. But the ruling class will adapt itself to every coalition formula, as long as it means maintaining power and being able to impose their demands on workers, as the last two governments since 1999 have shown. These governments were dubbed "historical" because the Christian democrats were thrown out of power for 8 consecutive years for the first time in the post war situation. They also showed how the bourgeois can gladly go from governments opposing the right to abortion to governments supporting gay rights, as long as those governments keep on defending cuts in labour cost, organising ultra-flexibility and offering almost tax-free conditions for the bosses.

This holds true as long as the working class does not organise itself into a political force next to its trade union force. The lack of a political party defending the rights of the working class means the trade union leadership can, for a time, sell as "the lesser evil" trade union linked parties in government and "social plans" instead of struggles to hold on to every job. But, as recent elections in the Netherlands have shown, workers can draw the conclusion from the experience of their old parties that it is time to support a new formation. This is the opportunity facing the CAP. If the working class can take on this enormous task of rebuilding a party of its own, independent of the established parties which have all become neo-liberal, then the bourgeoisie will also need a strong party which can impose its programme. Until then, they’ll go on "adapting".

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