Belgium: 150 days plus…still no government

Ruling class parties in a muddle

The political and constitutional crisis that developed after last June’s parliamentary elections is now officially the longest period that a government has failed to be formed in Belgium’s history. To date, the main political parties have not been able to reach agreement on forming a coalition administration.

On 7 November, the crisis was enhanced by a vote in the Federal Chamber’s Commission of Internal Affairs, when Flemish-community MPs used, for the first time in history, their majority to force a decision onto the French-speaking community. With only one Flemish MP abstaining (a Brussels MP for the Green Party) the Commission voted in favour of splitting the electoral and legal district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV). This is highly symbolic, as BHV is the only mixed Flemish-Francophone district and a split would mean that French speakers living in Halle-Vilvoorde lose their language facilities (e.g. getting official documents in French). Also, it would no longer be possible for them to vote for the French speaking parties participating in Brussels’ political life. The French speaking community has now used one of the defence mechanisms granted by the Constitution, the “conflict of interest”, to force a new round of negotiations on all language communities, and to block every decision on the issue for 60 days, during which such negotiations have to take place.

Strangely enough, this new escalation has made some of the political commentators more optimistic on the question of the formation of a “Blue-Orange” national coalition (a coalition of the “orange” Christian and “blue” liberal parties). It has put, for at least a few months, the most difficult, symbolic issue of BHV into a different ‘forum’ that can allow the talks on forming a government to continue separately. They think it will now be possible to form a right wing government, which, by necessity, will have to postpone any state reform until after the regional elections in 2009. It does seem very difficult to imagine the French speaking politicians making real concessions on the BHV issue after the Flemish ‘community’ vote in the Chamber Commission. Immediately afterwards, the King restated his confidence in Leterme (leader of the Flemish Christian CD&V) continuing to head the talks on forming a government. But the monarch also stated that everything related to gaining the necessary two thirds parliamentary majority needed on constitutional issues will be passed off to a “committee of wise people”, which will try and prepare a compromise for after the regional elections in 2009.

Other commentators point to the fact that the CD&V (the CD&V, the Flemish Christian democrat party, which is in a “cartel” (alliance) with the N-VA Flemish nationalists), still want a state reform, as they want something to show their voters. They see the formation of a government with a “limited” mandate, i.e. with only a socio-economic agenda, as a defeat for the Flemish parties. They stated that compared to “a big state reform” – moving important responsibilities to the regions and the communities – a split of BHV would seem rather feeble.

Even though it is true that CD&V would count for a lot less without the N-VA Flemish nationalists, this still does not mean that this alliance could not break up with, hopefully for the CD&V, some N-VA senators joining them for careerist reasons. To form a government, the Flemish nationalists have to be prepared to make a compromise – this is Belgium after all! It became very clear over the last weeks that the “old generation” CVP leaders have major problems with both their alliance partner and the present CD&V leadership and were pushing towards a Belgian-style compromise. Events are developing quickly and further acceleration can now take place, at any given moment. A compromise is being sought and once it is won the N-VA Flemish nationalists will have to show its loyalty to the CD&V or be prepared to go their own way.

Pressure to get to form government, any kind of government, increases every day. Bad economic news is on the agenda: predicting an economic slowdown in 2008; budgetary projections showing a deficit for the 2007 budget of about 1.5 billion euro (and another projection showing between 3 and 4 billion euro for 2008), plus panic over pensions. In the end, a ‘solution’ will be found: most likely a government with a limited agenda, focusing on social and economic issues, in the form of a “normal” Orange-Blue government or even going down the road of a partially “technocratic” government, a classical tripartite formation that would force at least some of the social democrats back into government. The Belgian ruling class may be in a muddle, but they have shown themselves throughout history as inventive and creative, up to a point, when needed.

In the meantime, the unrest and insecurity whipped up by this impasse lead to all sorts of manifestations of people speaking out against the nationalism of the main Flemish parties. Brussels, and its immediate periphery, is now suddenly full of Belgian flags and companies producing flags have difficulties meeting a peak in demand. Petitions are circulating. Students of VUB and ULB (respectively, the Flemish and French speaking universities of Brussels) held ‘pillow fights’, to show how ridiculous they found the nationalist arguments. Many “jokes” are circulating about the constitutional crisis, with comedians having fun about the chaos. New websites commenting on the issues have sprung up; including “split Bart de Wever nu” (De Wever is the president of the N-VA Flemish nationalists, which came from a split in the BHV). Sections of the ruling class declare their ‘love’ for Belgium – it is, after all, a state which always gives them what they want.

“Save Solidarity”

More importantly, a petition campaign was established, called “Save the Solidarity”, which was started by Antwerp shop stewards in the Total and Degussa (petro-chemical) industries. This campaign is given lip service support by the leadership of the two big trade union federations (the Christian democratic ACV/CSC and the social democratic ABVV/FGTB) and many well known Flemish artists, academics and journalists have spoken out in favour of this campaign. It is a more important campaign because of its outspoken call for solidarity amongst workers and unemployed throughout Belgium. It marks a step away from all-Belgian nationalism, called ‘Belgicism’ or ‘unitarism’, in Belgian politics, as the main organised response to Flemish nationalism, by going, some way, towards expressing working class interests as independent from the nationalists on all sides.

The LSP/MAS (the CWI in Belgium) and the CAP (the Committee for Different Politics) support this campaign and support its petition. At the last October’s CAP (Committee for Different Politics) conference, a shop steward from Total, who was among the initiators of the petition, explained the reasons behind the campaign and showed the conference the results of a study his campaign made. The report answered the very coloured arguments and figures used by the Flemish nationalists and showed clearly that Flemish workers would definitely not be better off after a split of social security system. It shows that splitting social security and employment benefit on regional lines is nothing but a step towards privatising large parts of social security, and steering Belgium in the direction of US-style social security.

Although “Save the Solidarity” is a good initiative, some criticism is necessary. There is a strong element of “Belgicism”, with the petition campaign stating “Belgium was built on solidarity”. This is only true in the sense that the Belgian working class has developed strong traditions of solidarity which go against the selfish Flemish nationalism of today. The Flemish nationalists’ arguments hold nothing in common with a genuine “liberation struggle” but are akin to the Italian Lega Nord’s approach – i.e. a rich region trying to get rid of a ‘money draining’ poorer region. In any other sense, it is sheer nonsense to say that Belgium, which according to Karl Marx was built as “a paradise for the capitalists”, was founded on ‘solidarity’. On the contrary, Belgium was created by the repression of the working class and, in the past, by overriding the justified demands of the Flemish population. Belgium was also built on lies and fake compromises, begotten by the clearly anti-democratic method of back-door dealings. Belgium is not “our” state; it is the state of Lippens and Frère (two major Belgian establishment figures – a head of the Fortis bank, and a main share holder in the Suez).

The most important weakness of the “Save the Solidarity” campaign is that its strategy is a media strategy – putting forward well known Flemish artists, sports figures etc. to get into the national media. These figures declare their love for Belgium in a way that has no links whatsoever to the working class roots of “Save the Solidarity” that makes it different from other campaigns, such as a group that gives out leaflets and stickers in the national colours. To really develop, “Save the Solidarity” campaign should call for national trade union action both against the neo-liberal and the nationalist programmes of the new government to come.

A neo-liberal agenda

The outgoing “purple” government of the liberals and social democrats left a legacy of budgetary difficulties, as was stated already before last June’s election by almost all financial institutions in Belgium. They have not left many assets to sell off and temporarily held off ‘structural cuts’. Leaks regarding partial agreements between the orange and blue would-be government partners clearly show these parties want to ‘set that right’. Both trade union federations openly declared they are ready for a struggle if a new government – if it ever gets to form itself –plans to push through this agenda.

A plan for massive cuts is going to come. On top of the already high budget deficits predicted for this and next year, there are also agreements to lower taxes (a central point for the “blue” liberal parties) and to increase the lowest benefits (certainly pensions), by about 2 billion euro (an election promise by the “orange” CD&V) for which the money will have to be found. The question is where will it come from? The budget difficulties are almost exclusively explained by the fact that the last budget was an ‘election budget’, which projected far higher income than could be expected, and by the “notional interest”, a scheme that lowers company taxes.

This notional interest scheme was created up by the former government to uphold Belgium’s attractiveness for international capitalist investment, after “coordination centres”, which made that multinationals pay peanuts for taxes, were condemned by the EU. To give an idea of the results of this scheme: the Electrabel company (part of Suez) avoided 30.2 million euro in taxes in the last year, alone! But, as much as the CD&V profiled itself as being in favour of “budgetary orthodoxy”, this does not mean they would make the big companies pay!

Parts of the governmental plan, pact or deal (or whatever they will call it) are already made clear by partial agreements between the partners working to create the new formation: lowering the percentage growth in health spending from 4.5% to 2.8% (while the real growth in expenditure is higher); massive sackings of state employees (mostly by non-replacement of retiring workers); lowering by 2% the so-called “wage handicap” (the claimed difference between the “higher” wages that Belgian workers get in comparison to neighbouring countries, something the trade unions say is no longer the case); and lowering (again) taxes on overtime. All these are planned before it is clear whether the current international finance crisis helps cause economic stagnation or a recession.

And then – following Sarkozy’s lead in France – the idea of forcing workers to provide a minimum service during strikes of public services, to make it more difficult for workers’ to fight back, is an integral part of the plan. Public sector workers say that they are already on “minimum service” owing to the lack of personnel. Most likely, instead of a minimum service, the CD&V (to which the biggest trade union federation, ACV/CSC, is still formally linked) will try to close a deal on a minimum notice period before strikes can take place, in that way making illegal any “spontaneous” strikes. But most strikes in the public sector are “spontaneous”, as the national leadership of this most bureaucratized part of the trade unions has already for years refused to call for any real organised national struggle. In the public services, shop stewards are not elected by workers through social elections, as in the private sector, but are appointed by the trade union leaderships.

On the 16 November, the social democratic trade union federation, ABVV/FGTB, will hold a “concentration” of trade union activists to protest against the neo-liberal agenda. This is a positive development, but the objective of the leadership is to gather just 1,000 activists together, show there will not be any real mobilisation. Nevertheless, this event can be the start of an information campaign and a discussion, on a broader scale, amongst trade unionists on how to build a strategy against a new government, which given the lack of a real workers’ party, will have an anti-social cuts plan.

The bosses will want to attack… but will they have a stable government?

The trade union leadership should send out a clear statement: The crisis over forming a new government is a sign of the weakness of the ruling capitalist class. The next new government will be an extremely unstable coalition, with constant infighting and rows over any possible subject, like the formation process itself.

The root cause of this crisis is the continuous discrediting of all capitalist institutions after a quarter century of cuts, which has led to the share of workers’ wages matching less than half of the country’s GDP (gross domestic product) for the first time, since 1971.

There is no real comparison between the present day CD&V/ N-VA Flemish nationalists’ alliance and the old Belgian Christian ‘people’s party’, the CVP/PSC, which played a dominant role throughout Belgian political history. Previously, in the 1950s, the Christian parties had an absolute majority in the whole of Belgium yet now, on the last election night, the CD&V-N.VA alliance had a big party because they have finally got back over 30% again in Flanders alone. The French speaking Christian democracy PSC’s successor, the French-speaking CDH (Christian democracy), has remained a small party which needs to link to one of the bigger Francophone parties, either the social democrats or the liberals, and cannot be seen anymore as a “sister party” of the CD&V. Instead, the CD&V views the CDH rather like a distant, and not much liked, cousin.

In the 1950s, the Christian party had an absolute control over the Christian democratic trade union, best symbolised by the fact that the national leadership continued negotiations with the government, against the will of their rank and file, even during the big and long-lasting general strike against the ‘Unity Law’ in 1960-61. This link loosened up, first gradually and then more markedly so, since the end of the 1980s. The fear of losing control over the Christian democratic trade union rank and file was one of the factors that led to the social democracy being brought into the government again in 1988, after the previous record breaking 148 day long government formation process. This was the time it took them to convince the social democratic parties to apply bosses’ cuts programme, albeit in a “salami” fashion (bit by bit, so nobody will notice it, they hoped), which they faithfully did, even when they changed political partners, in 1999.

Ever since then, ties between the ACV “workers’ wing” and the CD&V have formally loosened. It is extremely unlikely that the ACV-leadership would be able to re-establish the old tight links now that “their” party is back in government, especially as their hold on their rank and file has weakened greatly. This was shown by the massive participation of ACV activists in the 2005 ABVV-organised strike against the ‘Generation Pact’ of the last government (or rather the current government still running “current affairs”), despite a big and public campaign by the ACV leadership not to.

The CD&V has become a more openly “pure” pro-capitalist party, with their only real criticism on the former purple-green and purple governments being that they did not make enough tough and structural cuts. The cuts plan they will have to carry out, once they have the government on the rails, will not change, but rather strengthen this view. The only thing the CD&V Christian democrats could profile on over in the last years was Flemish nationalism. Their political games over this issue led to the current crisis. The bosses now want a strong right wing government that focuses on making severe attacks on the working class and which does not let the national question get in the way of that business. Election promises can be tricky things though, particularly if new elections are close. Regional and European elections are scheduled for 2009, when, according to many commentators, there will almost certainly be new federal elections, as well.

Wallonia

The ruling class in Wallonia is not really better off when it comes to parties who could represent them in an effective way. The social democratic PS lost, for the first time since the second world war, its position as the biggest party in Wallonia to the liberal MR party, which regroups the old French-speaking liberal party, the middle class anti-Flemish party, the FDF, which is based mostly in and around Brussels, and parts of the old French-speaking Christian democracy.

The MR focused their election campaign on continuous scandals in the PS. The most probable perspective is, however, that their first place in Wallonia is a very temporary situation, definitely if the PS is not included in the government that is still to be formed. Not including the PS can be a “clever” manoeuvre, because the PS would certainly be a major obstacle to forming a government with a clear right wing image (a Sarkozy-style government, as MR-leader Reynders dreams about). But we can be sure that the capitalist class is wondering very hard what would be the consequences for class struggle if a clearly right wing government makes cuts and other attacks against working class interests without giving ‘traditional’ sweeteners and partial concessions to the workers’ movement.

In reality, the real leaders – in the sense of representing the interests of the ruling class – of the last governing coalitions were not the liberals. The architects of the “purple” policy (in reality “Belgified” Blairism) were the Flemish social democrats; the ministers in the posts executing anti-social cuts measures were all social democrats. The PS might come with its own specific “socialist” image, the sweeteners they ask might be costly at times, but they have succeeded for 19 years in forcing a neo-liberal agenda on the socialist trade union. Thereby, they also kept in check the Christian democratic trade union, with which the PS has many links in Wallonia. This was something the last “orange-blue” governments in the 1980s did not succeed in doing, because of the provocation it meant for the working class.

Years ahead marked by crisis after crisis

The CD&V will create a government, and will make the necessary compromise, and so will the other capitalist parties. In Belgium, it is a tradition to let things come to a head, to use the pressure to push a compromise through. As an (anonymous) old-timer of state reform negotiations declared: “We need to feel the edge of the blade, the cold of total separation” to “get back to our senses”. Dramatisation is an integral part of this dynamic.

It is true that, one day, all this will escape from the control of the parties and state bureaucracy. And every new rotten compromise will make that day come sooner. This is because the profit-system – which means a 17.6% poverty rate in one of the richest countries of the world, which accepts that one fifth of pensioners live in poverty, even one in four in the Brussels region – will never use the riches produced by the workers to dramatically improve living standards and to ensure that every person lives comfortably and see their rights respected. Capitalism does not want to and it cannot provide these basic needs – a “human” capitalist would go bust! And, in the context of shortages, all sorts of divisions will thrive, and every ruling class will play on those divisions to get what they want. In a country that works on the basis of ‘power-sharing’ by different communities, every question becomes more infected by the national question. This will, at times, lead to paralysis and even violent clashes, although the Belgian national question had not yet produced this disaster.

But the explosion of national divisions in Belgium has not arrived yet and is not to be expected in the short term, although it is inevitable, in the long term, as long as capitalism continues in Belgium. We can clearly see by a study of Belgian history, and more specifically its crises, how the national question and class struggle are linked. When class struggle surges, and the working class looks for collective solutions through collective struggle, solidarity beyond the language border is a dominant feature: the divisions in society along class lines takes prominence in comparison to divisions along national lines. When class struggle hits a wall and ends in set-back or defeat, support for nationalist “solutions” increases.

This was clearly the case in the 1960s, when the defeat of the 1960-61 general strike led to the coming into being of Walloon regionalism as a mass force amongst the French-speaking working class. This saw social democratic trade union leaders, like Renard, hiding their retreat on the social question, their fear of workers’ power (displayed when the strike became insurrectionary), behind radical regionalism and rhetoric, with comments such as “Wallonia would go faster towards socialism if it got rid of these right-wing Flemish”. In reality, the strike movement in Flanders was still expanding when Renard set up a ‘Walloon committee’ to lead the strike, in response to the refusal of the national leadership to give an all-out action call to workers across the country.

During the First World War the Belgian social democratic leadership also became openly and blatantly Belgian nationalist and pro-capitalist. It went into government (without an election) during the war and left the pacifist Flemish nationalist movement, which originated in the army, open to a more right wing and anti-democratic form of Flemish nationalism that later was prepared to align itself to the fascist regime in Germany to get their ‘independent Flanders’.

The Belgian working class, however, has not that much experience of outright defeat – a total defeat without concessions. The last big struggle, against the ‘Generation Pact’, in 2005, did not bring an all-out defeat, as major issues were left to be worked out through “social negotiations” between the bosses and the trade unions. The Generation Pact finally voted on by parliament was a much watered down version of the original Pact. The sharpest edges were taken off. One of the then government’s initial proposals, ‘Getting Older Actively’ by the social democratic budget minister, Freya Vanden Bossche, led to a threat of general strike by the Christian democratic trade union leadership. This was followed by a broad campaign among their rank and file, answering the arguments and lies of the government justifying the attack on pre-pension schemes. The ACV research bureau book, “50 grey lies”, is still an excellent document, giving worker-activists arguments against the neo-liberal policy of all the traditional parties and institutions, albeit they do not give real alternatives.

The 2005 struggle against the Generation Pact is the basis of the popularity of the ideas around “Save the Solidarity”. Flemish workers know better than to put their fate into the hands of the Flemish political caste; they know its hunger for privatisation, for “modernising” the labour market (i.e. replacing steady and decent full time jobs with low paid, often state sponsored, low pay sectors). The struggle did not stop after this major general strike. Belgium has since then been flooded with strikes, mostly small and isolated, but still going on. This will to struggle can still explode into a big national movement against a right wing government or its cuts plan.

The ruling class is in a weak position, having manoeuvred itself in a situation which spells impasse. But if this will lead to a situation of no more social attacks depends entirely upon the working class and its leadership. If it does not move into action around wage negotiations, if it does not defend its right to strike, if it does not fight, in other words, the attacks will come. The first part of ruling class attacks has already been played out in connection with a report on Belgian ‘competitiveness’, from which the trade unions and bosses draw totally opposite conclusions.

A hard defeat for the working class in forthcoming struggles could lead to a search for other solutions, with nationalism, on both sides, being a strong contender. But the capitalist class can, in no way, be sure to be able to deliver a hard blow using a weak and unstable coalition government, in a period when the will to struggle is clearly still there among workers, both in the private sector and in the public sectors. In such a situation, the capitalist class will do all in its power to prevent a government clearly falling due to social questions, which would put any new government under enormous pressure. According to the history books, no Belgian government has ever fallen over social and class struggles (the division between labour and capital), but always over the other two main divisions in Belgium: the religious question and the national question.

The only thing that can be said with certainty, at this stage, is that the coming years will be years of crisis and of struggle, and also of the further development of class consciousness amongst broader layers of the working class. This can lead to the same conclusion as the people around CAP already made after the struggle against the Generation Pact, notably, that a new workers’ party is necessary, if we want to keep the remnants of the post-war gains of the working class. Without such a party, the only perspective the majority of the population will be economic and political instability, uncertainty and crisis, and the prospect of ongoing nationalist strife.

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