Workers will have to resist more ‘social reform’ cuts
The Belgian federal elections on 10 June illustrated deep rooted discontent with the government’s policies of the past years.
The CD&V and NVA, (the Christian Democratic Party, in alliance with the NVA (a Flemish nationalist party) and a new rightwing populist formation around an ex-liberal MP, ‘List Dedecker’, were the main winners in the northern, Flemish area of Belgium. In the southern, Walloon area, ‘Ecolo’ (from the word Ecology), the francophone Walloon greens, were the main benefactors of the heavy losses of the Parti Socialiste, the francophone social-democratic party. The MR (the Francophone liberals) became the biggest Walloon party, but gain only narrowly compared to the elections in 2003. The time of electoral shifts in decimals is over; from now on, changes in election results are expressed in several percentages.
Flemish area: looking for change
Johan Vande Lanotte, chair of the SPa (the Flemish social democrats) and Bart Somers, chair of the VLD (the Flemish liberal democrats), who were in a coalition government for the past eight years, could not believe the election results. What happened? None of the polls predicted a beating for the SPa (the Flemish liberal democrats). Only eight months ago, in local council elections the Flemish social democrats did very well, gaining 1.8%, with some excellent results in the bigger cities. At the time, the media talked about the "Vande Lanotte-effect". The liberal party, of which Dedecker was still a member at that stage, did badly, and Dedeckers’ personal score suggested the end of his political career.
But in the recent federal elections, Vande Lanotte’s SPa suffered a heavy defeat, losing nearly 20% in Ostend (from 48% during the council elections in October 2006 down to 25.6% in the federal elections 2007), while Dedecker resurges from the ashes. In Gent, the Flemish social democrats plunged from 31.7 to 21.3%, in Leuven from 38.1 to 20.5%, in St. Niklaas from 35.4 to 19.9%, and in Hasselt from 45.7 to 25.6%. To conclude, like the media have done, that "the party misunderstood the electorate" is an understatement. The VLD (the Flemish liberal democrats) were relieved their losses were only 5%, compared to 9% for their coalition partner the SPa. Nevertheless, the ‘purple government’ received a severe beating from the electorate. The only consolation for the VLD is that the ‘liberal family’ (the Walloon Francophone liberals, the MR, and the Flemish liberal democrats, the VLD, together) got the biggest number of seats in the national parliament.
The Flemish daily newspaper, ‘De Morgen’, a firm supporter of the purple coalition in the past, commented: "The programme [of the SPa-Spirit] was a 100% lecturers’ [academic], calculated in decimals, more precise than ever, but with as a side effect: boring, little excitement, and certainly not enthusing." Still, according to De Morgen, the Flemish green party, Groen!, was not able to gain from the defeat of SPa (Flemish social democrats) because they are too much alike, and want to participate in government. "The main demand of this opposition party was… [obtaining] a minister."
The SPa-Spirit is the name of the current alliance between the Flemish social democrats, and ‘Spirit’, a breakaway Flemish nationalist party. The Flemish nationalists reconstituted a political party, the Volksunie (People’s Union), in 1954. This party lost its most radical wing in the late 70’s after some constitutional reforms. The remainder of the Volksunie split in recent years over previous constitutional reform; a rupture which ended its existence as an independent party, with the conservative wing allied to the CD&V (Christian-Democrats) and the ‘progressive’ wing allied to the SPa.
The De Morgen newspaper goes on to say, "Those who have enough of being virtuous, had only one direction to look, namely Dedecker. He was probably attractive for leftwing voters."
Some conclude the electorate in Flanders is rightwing. We do not agree. They do vote for the right, but mainly because the "visible" left, SPa-Spirit and Groen!, constantly disappoints them and enforces rightwing policies.
What political alternative do workers have?
The SPa-Spirit pretends to defend our interests, but does exactly the opposite. They dismantle public services and make them more expensive, they force unemployed workers to accept whatever job at whatever conditions, they rob from the social security system and give tax breaks to the bosses.
Many workers think, if that’s what we get, we might as well vote immediately for the real bosses’ parties. The Flemish greens only seem to use their leftwing image in opposition, as soon as a political position is on offer. Even if at some point in the future they change their tune, the enjoyment of power dominates the thinking of the Flemish greens.
The only alternatives during the elections, the Maoist PVDA-PTB (Belgian Workers’ Party) and CAP (Committee for Another Policy), lacked the financial means and were boycotted by the media. So, most workers were not aware of these electoral alternatives. Some have vaguely heard of the Maoist PVDA-PTB, but most do not even know the CAP exists.
In such a situation, the electorate starts shopping around. Previously, they voted for Rossem (a one man-party headed by a rich anarchist who got elected to parliament in the early 90’s), then there was a switch to the greens, then to the Vlaams Belang (Flemish neo-fascists), then to SPa-Spirit, and finally to Dedecker, who ran away with the votes.
Jean-Marie Dedecker has been a celebrity since he coached the Belgian Olympic Judo team, had a high profile spat with the Judo federation, and became a VLD-MP, only to become embroiled in a fight with the party leadership. In short, he is a ‘trouble maker’, but one who dares to say things as he thinks they are.
The electorate looks for change, including to wild cards like Dedecker, but whoever they vote for, the hammer of social destruction always comes down on the same heads – those of the working class, the poor and youth.
Walloon area: against corruption
There are, of course, enormous differences between the political situation in the Walloon francophone, the Brussels bilingual and the Flemish Dutch speaking areas. The Parti Socialiste lost 7% of its votes in comparison to previous national elections. It paid for the numerous corruption scandals it was involved in. In the province of Hainaut, the party lost up to 10%, with a peak in Charleroi of -15%. In the bilingual electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, the PS did better (-1.6%), but, again, with a peak of -6.5% in St. Gilles, the constituency of Brussels prime-minister Charles Picqué. Nevertheless, the PS, with 28.6% of the vote, still remains a political heavy weight that needs to be reckoned with. This is partly because, unlike the SPa-Spirit, the Parti Socialiste is still able to present itself as a party defending the social security system against the ultra-neo-liberal figure of MR (the Francophone liberals) Chair and former finance minister, Reynders.
The MR became, for the first time since 1946, the biggest francophone party, but more as a result of the losses of the Parti Socialiste, than as a result of its own strength. The francophone Christian democrats (CDH – Democratic Humanist Centre) gained slightly. But it was mainly Ecolo that gained from the losses of the PS and is the big winner. MR Chair, Reynders, said the election result in the southern area equalled constitutional reform. By saying this he meant that the heavy losses of the PS have, according to him, removed an obstacle for "modernising" the francophone economy to the level of the Flemish one. Reynders is actually admitting that further constitutional reform, the transfer of powers and responsibilities to the regions, has but one goal: to organise ‘social competition’ between the regions at the expense of workers’ conditions.
Unlike the likely future prime-minister, the Christian Democratic Party’s leader, Yves Leterme, who has a comfortable majority to launch an attack on social gains, Didier Reynders has much less room to manoeuvre. He has to take into account the gains of Ecolo, which states it is willing to join a coalition government, but not at any price. Furthermore, the Democratic Humanist Centre has been shouting from the rooftops that it is not ready to lend support to constitutional reforms, certainly not if it goes against ‘francophone interests’. Reynders, much more than Leterme, will have to listen to the mood on the streets and will fear active resistance to his policies.
Vande Lanotte already made it clear that SPa-Spirit is ready for a period in opposition, and the party is ready to lend its support, from the opposition benches, to the necessary parliamentary majority needed for constitutional reform. If the SPa ends up in opposition, we expect a soft, what they call a "constructive", opposition, modelled on the US Democratic Party.
The ABVV (the socialist union) leadership might be shaken by new cuts and the mood amongst union members, but the leaders will not take the initiative to organise resistance. Also, with CD&V (Christian Democratic Party) in government, the Christian Union (ACV), which is the biggest in the Flemish area, will not readily mobilise its forces or show serious opposition against cutbacks.
It is different in the francophone area. Up to now, the PS (Parti Socialiste) was able to sell the policies of social dismantling by exercising pressure on the FGTB-leadership (the francophone socialist union, which is the main union federation in the francophone area), as well as on the CSC-leadership (the Christian union). If the Parti Socialiste ends up in opposition it will not ease the task of Reynders. On the contrary, its opposition will not be soft or "constructive" but hard. This, of course, is if the socialists end up on the opposition benches.
Within the unions this electoral result will provoke discussions. The tops will conclude that a shift to the right has taken place and will tend to develop even more towards non-fighting ‘service’ unions. At rank and file level, and possibly amongst the middle layers in the unions, some will want to draw up a balance sheet about the way in which the trade unions accepted the policies of the ‘purple government’. An open call by the ABVV (the socialist union) in its paper to vote for some shop stewards on the SPa-Spirit list was regarded unfavourably by many workers. The poor results for the SPa-Spirit list, including meagre results for its four shop stewards, will be considered a ‘punishment’.
Extremely difficult to form a government
Leterme is faced with an extremely difficult task. Along with his partners, the NVA (the Flemish nationalist party) Leterme aims to carry out so-called ‘constitutional reforms’. He must, however, pay attention to the dissenters who are looking over his shoulder and are ready to shout: "Betrayal!" It will be very difficult for Leterme to leave its partner with empty hands, especially because they scored well in the elections.
In Flanders, the SPa-Spirit would have been a suitable partner, but they have been floored by the electorate. The greens are mistrusted by CD&V-NVA (Christian Democrats and Flemish nationalists) because of their ‘confused’ position on the national question. That leaves only the VLD (the Flemish liberal democrats), exactly the party which is in favour of strengthening the national federal state structure, something that is not popular with the NVA Flemish nationalists. To invite the List Dedecker into the government is, on the other hand, probably taboo for the VLD Flemish liberals.
In the francophone area, Leterme can do business with the liberals of MR, although the MR is absorbed in the FDF (Front des Francophones – a mainly Brussels-based party defending the French-speaking community in Brussels, whose candidates did well on the MR-lists) and it has to be seen what their attitude will be. Leterme can also expect resistance from the French-speaking counterpart of his own ‘family’, the CDH (Democratic Humanist Centre).
Moreover, in a scenario where the Christian democrats and liberals form a government, Leterme can expect the Parti Socialiste to play on the national question and denounce any concessions or compromise from the other French speaking parties in the next round of constitutional reforms.
In that sense, it looks like the formation of a government will be extremely complicated and might take a long time.
It might pass that Leterme is obliged to break links with the NVA Flemish nationalists, and possibly form a coalition government of Christian Democrats and Liberals. It is not excluded that the attempt at constitutional reform by such a government might be supported by the SPa from the opposition benches. This would allow the government to find the necessary two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution.
Such a government will be inevitably a cabinet of crisis, which could collapse in the run-up to the regional and European elections in 2009.
Leterme is confronted with enormous social-economic challenges. If the Christian Democrats and the Liberals form a coalition government, the bosses will seize the opportunity to demand their cuts-making policies are followed. Limitations in time of the right to unemployment benefits; a drastic reduction in company tax; possibly the postponement of the closure of nuclear reactors; a further dismantling of public services…it’s all coming. By the end of this year, another 3 to 4 billion euros have to be ‘found’ for the government, but it is an open question whether all this will be possible without provoking the unions by making cutbacks. At the same time, Leterme will have to pass a plebiscite on his policy, by 2009, in the regional and European elections.
Workers in all parts of Belgium desperately need a socialist alternative to all the different stripes of pro-big business parties. The recent elections saw the first outing for the CAP (Committee for Another Policy), which the LSP-MAS (CWI Belgium) is part of. However, as stated earlier, the CAP lacked the financial means and media attention to make a big breakthrough at this point. Nevertheless, the struggle to build a viable socialist opposition goes on.