Belgium: Flemish nationalists and Walloon social-democrats win elections

“Anger can explode at any moment, for any reason”

The 13 June federal elections in Belgium led to a new stage of political crisis in the country. The elections, called early, saw different results in the Flemish north and the Walloon and Brussels regions. In the Flemish area, the rightwing middle class nationalists of the N-VA (New Flemish Alliance) won a landslide with over 31% of the votes. The three traditional parties (Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Liberals) were at a historic low, with only 45%.

In the French-speaking regions, the formerly social-democratic PS (Socialist Party) won (35.7% for the Senate and 37.5% for the Lower House). The liberal MR’s growth in the 2007 election vanished and the breakthrough of the green party, Ecolo, in the 2009 Euro elections, was not confirmed.

The CWI in Belgium (LSP) participated in the elections, with a list of its own in the Flemish area and as part of a broader alliance, Front des Gauches, in Brussels and Wallonia, together with five other left parties (PC, LCR, CAP, PH and Velorution). The LSP got 0.20% (7,800 votes) and the Front des Gauches won 1.15% (28.000 votes). spoke to Anja Deschoemacker, who headed the list of Front des Gauches in Brussels. In Flanders, the N-VA won 30% of the vote. Will this party become a new large party and can it lead a stable government?

Anja: “The stability of the leading position won by party leader Bart De Wever is uncertain. The party itself is a small petty-bourgeois party supporting the positions of the small bosses in the Flemish area. The party combines the demands of the Flemish bosses with a business-like Flemish nationalism based on economical selfishness, with a more romantic wing of historical Flemish-nationalism. Finding a balance between those wings will prove to be difficult.

“The key question will be if Bart De Wever will be prepared to use his newly won position in the interests of the Belgian ruling class. If he is not, we will go into a period with a continuing political crisis, with chaos and instability against the background of financial speculators looking for a new prey. This could be an excuse for the three traditional political parties, eventually together with the greens, to take control of the situation by forming a government of national unity. In that case, the media would do all it could to blame the N-VA and De Wever for the crisis. De Wever could follow the same path of the previous prime minister, Yves Leterme, from the CD&V and go from “hero to zero”.

“It seems as if De Wever is prepared to serve for the Belgian ruling class. Immediately after the elections, he showed a strong will to come to a compromise and he emphasized that his party is not in favour of splitting up the country in the short term. He claimed to be in favour of “evolution” and not “revolution”. An important question will be to what extent he will be able to convince his party members of the compromises he wishes to make. The far right Vlaams Belang, and the hard line nationalists inside the N-VA, will be very critical. In the coming days and weeks, this might not yet manifest itself given the strong personal result of De Wever (who got 780,000 preferential votes or almost one in two of the N-VA votes).”

Do you expect De Wever to hold on to his strong electoral support?

Anja: “De Wever and his N-VA will also be responsible for the savage cuts of the coming years. If there will be a ‘mirror coalition’ [a national coalition government with the same parties that form the regional governments in the Flemish area and the French speaking area] this would take the liberals into an opposition role. Then the N-VA would be the most rightwing component of the government and the party would be asking more and more cuts, which would not be very popular.

“The N-VA remains a small party. It does not have the broad base of support in society and different organisations supporting it, that, for example, the Flemish Christian-Democrats (CD&V) have. This base allowed CD&V to regain strength after their defeat in 1999. The electoral support of the N-VA is largely new and comes from all the other parties. The very quick rise and fall of LDD [a Flemish rightwing populist party which fell to less than 5% in these elections and lost 4 of its 5 MPs] shows how fast things can develop.

“The N-VA’s 30% is mainly an expression of the fact that this time voters supported for the person and his party, which they thought could be the best guarantee during a new “state reform” [a reorganization of state structures]. In previous years, every Flemish party, institution and the media have told the inhabitants of Flanders that a state reform would be necessary to keep “our” welfare. There seemed to be ‘no alternative’ but De Wever.

“Where the votes will go once De Wever has proven that he has no solutions remains an open question. CD&V might win back a little after their historical low result. The formerly social-democratic SP.a is a junior coalition party, not a leading party. The liberal party, the VLD, has already over long time given up on its dreams to become a “broad popular party”. If the victory of the N-VA proves one thing, it is the dislike against all the traditional parties.”

In the Walloon area, the social-democrats of the PS won a landslide. Does this mean that there is more stability in the southern part of Belgium?

Anja: “The PS is the only ruling class party that still can pretend to defend the ‘general interest’ and that gets support from voters looking for stability and certainty. The PS is a strange bourgeois party, a party that has offered itself to the ruling class as the party able to control the socialist, workers’ movement in its stronghold – Wallonia – and making it accept cuts. PS leader, Elio Di Rupo, still refers to the ‘Global Plan’ (an austerity package in 1993 that led to a general strike); his party was responsible for these measures that included the biggest structural cuts ever in post-war history.

“The PS wants and will cut public expenditure. However the party will be careful how to present the measures. The PS already spoke about a “social pact” and other measures, with progressive names for vicious attacks on the living standard of the working class. During the election campaign, the PS not once used the word “cuts”. The party, of course, has a history and strong ability to hide its anti-social policies by blaming the Flemish christian-democrats, the Flemish people in general or Europe. If a “mirror coalition” is formed, it is possible that Di Rupo would become PM (the first French speaking PM since 1974). This would make it more difficult for the PS to present itself as a sort of opposition inside the government.”

Is a compromise between De Wever and Di Rupo possible?

Anja: “A compromise on breaking up BHV [The electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde containing the bilingual capital and the officially Dutch-speaking villages and towns around Brussels, where a big French speaking minority lives], a social-economic state reform and structural cuts seemed impossible just before the elections. But already, one day after the elections, it seemed “difficult, but possible”. It would be possible if De Wever is prepared to implement the politics of the ruling class and if he can convince his party to follow him. The N-VA will be in a difficult position: either the party will be the “saviour of the Fatherland”, which will be difficult for the Flemish nationalist members or the party will get the treatment Leterme got before and will be brought down as responsible for the chaos.

“The PS offers some possibilities for a compromise. Splitting up BHV is not a huge problem for the PS, as it are mainly the liberal MR and, to a lesser extent, the christian-democrat CDH that win French speaking votes in the villages and towns around Brussels. But splitting the electoral district without any compensation would not be acceptable after the political instability of the previous years. The PS will insist on maintaining the national social security (and thus also a “national” destruction of the remaining elements of the welfare state). The PS also might demand some purely symbolic measures against the speculators or the very rich.

“Both the PS and the N-VA will try to come to an agreement. Both parties have an interest in coming to ‘solution’. If this is possible remains uncertain, but it is not impossible. If it does not work out, a government of “national unity” is probable and if that is not possible new elections are not excluded.”

What does this all mean for workers?

Anja: “An important question is how the cuts will be implemented. Will there be a quick and hard confrontation with the workers’ movement or not? We can expect a sort of “Belgian compromise” that will be presented to the workers as being “balanced” and in the “general interest” to get all factors involved, including the trade union leadership.

“By spreading the cuts, the government can try to avoid a general confrontation. But the situation remains uncertain both economically and socially. Underneath the surface there is a fear for the future. Anger can explode at any moment, for any reason. The weak point of the working class is and remains its leadership or rather lack of leadership.

“The PSL/LSP [The Belgian CWI] has to be prepared for quick developments of struggle. A key issue will be the need to break the links between the unions and the government parties. The unions and fighting trade union militants have to play a central role in the necessary construction of a political voice that can represent the struggle and which thus stands independent of all those parties that already for a long time have chosen the side of the bosses. If a coming state reform means that different sectors will be split, we also will have to campaign for trade union and workers’ unity across the language border and against the possible regionalisation of the trade unions.”

Overview of the election results:

Official election results (for the Senate – for the Lower House the votes are more or less the same)

Flemish area: [compared to 2009 European elections]

N-VA (Flemish nationalist): 31.69% [+21.81]

CD&V (christian-democrat): 16.15% [-7.11]

SP.a (former social-democrat): 15.31% [+2.08]

Open VLD (liberal): 13.32% [-8.95]

Vlaams Belang (far right): 12.28% [-3.60]

Groen (green): 6.28% [-1.62]

LDD (rightwing populist): 5.47% [-1.81]

PVDA (ex-Maoist, now left-reformist): 1.35% [+0.37]

LSP (CWI): 0.20% [-0.02]

French speaking area: [compared to 2009 European elections]

PS (former social-democrat): 35.72% [+5.82]

MR (liberal): 24.32% [-1.73]

Ecolo (green): 14.32% [-8.56]

CDH (christian-democrat): 13.46% [+0.12]

PP (rightwing populist): 4.01%

Wallonie D’Abord (far right): 2.52% [+0.99]

PTB+ (ex-Maoist, now left-reformist): 2.07% [+0.89]

Front des Gauches (left alliance): 1.15%

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June 2010