Belgium: The rise of the PTB/PvdA

Recent polls confirm a probable electoral breakthrough for the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB/PvdA).

Recent polls confirm a probable electoral breakthrough for the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB/PvdA). On 25 May it could get one MEP, five or more MPs in the federal parliament, and up to twice that number in the three regional parliaments. This will be the first time in 30 years that those on the left of the social democratic parties and Greens are represented in parliament. ERIC BYL of the LSP/PSL (CWI Belgium) examines this important development.

Compared to its main trading partners in neighbouring countries, the Belgian representatives of capital complain of the country’s slowness in cutting wages and services. This is mainly due to the potential strength of the workers’ movement, with a net unionisation (without early retirees and unemployed) of 60%. The bourgeoisie is well aware of this. Each general strike, including the last one in January 2012, has been able to silence the bosses.

Traditionally, the Belgian establishment exploits national and religious differences to obscure class antagonism. From a unitary state, Belgium developed into a complicated federation comprising three geographical regions, Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels, and three language communities of Flemish (Dutch), French and German speakers. With the crisis, disputes between the regions and communities over the distribution of wealth increased. Some bosses, politically represented by the nationalist New Flemish Alliance (NV-A), aim to further change the federal state structure into what they call a confederal one. There are differences over its meaning but most agree that the centre of gravity would shift from the federal level to the regions and communities.

This discussion, fundamentally on how best to confront the workers’ movement – on a national level or the regions first – explains why it took 194 days to compose a coalition of five parties after the 2007 general elections, and again 541 days after the June 2010 elections to cobble together a six-party coalition. The current coalition government, led by Elio Di Rupo, leader of the francophone Parti Socialiste (PS) and the first immigrant and also gay prime minister, transferred a range of responsibilities to the regions, but only part of the corresponding budget, imposing automatic cuts in the regions and communities. It also carried through an austerity plan of over €20 bill-ion, the biggest in Belgian history. But for the bosses and their political puppets, this is only the beginning. After 25 May there will be five years without elections. That, they believe, is their opportunity.

Unending austerity has undermined the authority of the traditional establishment parties. Especially in the Flemish area this has translated into political fragmentation. In the polls the NV-A now gets 32% in Flanders, followed by the Christian Democrats (18%), the Socialist Party (14.5%), Liberals (13%), Greens (8.5%), Vlaams Belang (7.5%) and PvdA+ (3.7%). In the Walloon area, the traditional parties’ support is more resilient. The PS usually gets between 35% and 40%. Even though it participated in every federal government since 1988, it was always able to play the opposition within a government dominated by Flemish right-wing parties, not able to stop the cuts but at least to soften them. Since Di Rupo became prime minister that position has been undermined. According to the polls, the PS will lose approximately 10%, with the PTB standing at an historic high of 7% and the hard right Parti Populaire at a little over 5%.

Trade union debates

The leaders of the two major trade union federations consider their links with politicians from Christian and Social Democracy crucial to soften the effects of redundancies and social cuts. To avoid even more right-wing attacks, they call for a vote for these parties and the Greens. In the Flemish area this policy completely failed and, without a left alternative, right-wing populist parties were able to step in. In the French-speaking area, the links with the Parti Socialiste as an ‘internal opposition’ in government appeared more logical. Many workers did and still do consider a vote for the PS as the best insurance against the right-wing dominated Flemish parties.

But that’s beginning to change. After the general strike in January 2012 the regional socialist trade union federation in Charleroi South Hainaut, organising 110,000 workers, concluded that it had had enough of the PS. On the following May Day it called publically on the radical left – the PTB, PSL, LCR and CP, the left of the PS and the Greens (in so far as they still exist) – to come together and create a new political formation that could really reflect the demands of workers and their unions. Later that same year, in local elections the PTB/PvdA got 52 council and district seats, up from 13 previously.

Early in 2013, this regional union executive invited the extra-parliamentary left, including the PTB/PvdA and PSL/LSP, to set up a coordination committee and organised a 400-strong meeting. Later that year two pamphlets were mass produced. One aims for a more combative stand of the unions and questions their existing political links. It puts forward the necessity of a new political partner to be initiated by the unified extra-parliamentary left with the help of the more combative unions. The other pamphlet argues in favour of an emergency economic and social programme on ten crucial issues.

Even though this region stands alone at this stage, similar discussions take place in other unions and regions. This trend will grow as a result of resistance against even more drastic cuts in the five year period that will follow 25 May. A breakthrough in the elections would put the PTB/PvdA and its newly elected MPs in a position to use the parliamentary platform to launch a front of resistance against the cuts, bringing together the left, the combative unions, and those workers and unions who at this stage are still waiting. Such an approach would increase pressure on the links of the union federations with their traditional parties, which have been acting as a major brake on workers’ struggle. It could also lay the basis for a new mass workers’ party in the near future.

The origins of the PTB/PvdA

The PTB/PvdA is the continuation of AMADA/TPO (All Power to the Workers) that originated in the second half of the 1960s. By the mid-1970s its forerunner was publishing weekly papers in Flemish and French, had its own Medicine for the People health centres where doctors worked at cheaper social security reimbursement rates, controlled some rank-and-file workers’ organisations which had originated as a response to the betrayal of the workplace occupation movement in the early 1970s, and had created a communist youth league. AMADA/TPO adhered to a crude form of Stalinism in line with the official Chinese CP’s ‘three world’s’ theory. It supported the reactionary Angolan Unita movement and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, among others. It argued for leaving the official unions in favour of autonomous red workers’ groups.

After Mao’s death, AMADA/TPO wanted to become more like the ’communist’ parties in other countries. In 1979 it changed the party name to PTB/PvdA. The position on the unions was softened and structures opened up. But this turn came to an abrupt end in 1989 when the PTB/PvdA supported the crushing of the Tien-An-Men uprising by the Chinese regime, and defended the Romanian dictator Ceausescu. Its historical leader and chairman from 1971 to 2008, Ludo Martens, became a prominent apologist internationally of Stalin and Stalinism.

In 2008 the PTB/PvdA announced that Martens was seriously ill (he died in 2011). Peter Mertens became the new chairman. He initiated a repositioning at a ‘renewal’ congress in 2008. According to Mertens, the renewal was a question of political survival. In his words, “the PTB/PvdA renounces dogmatism and sectarianism, aims to come forward with concrete solutions for concrete problems, and prefers to be named ‘emerging left’ instead of ‘radical left’.” On the unions, Mertens said, “for a long time we’ve been on a course of confrontation with the union leaders. We blamed them for being part of the establishment. It was wrong”. Since then the PTB/PvdA avoids public criticism of the trade union leaders even though many of its members clash from time to time with the union apparatuses.

Concrete solutions for concrete problems?

The first ‘concrete solution’ launched in 2004 aimed for cheaper medication. The PTB/PvdA proposed a ‘Kiwi-model’, referring to a system it discovered in New Zealand, based on public tender for contracts, with social security only repaying for medicines that obtain the best price/quality relation. When the federal government partially introduced the system shortages developed of specifically those medications. The LSP/PSL was never in favour of this because the pharmaceutical industry would inevitably game the system and use the threat of losing contracts to put pressure on wages and working conditions. Only the nationalisation of the pharmaceutical industry under the control of workers and users can guarantee affordable prices and sufficient supply without undermining workers’ conditions.

To resist rising unemployment the PTB/PvdA proposes to prohibit collective redundancies in profitable companies and impose sanctions on bosses who do not keep to this rule. Of course, LSP/PSL supports every legal restriction on redundancies. The existing laws are insufficient. However, while all possible means must be used to defend workers, including laws and courts, they must not be posed as an alternative to building a strong movement on the ground and appealing to solidarity from other workers.

Another major PTB/PvdA policy is a ‘millionaire’s tax’ of 1% on wealth over €1 million, 2% on wealth over €2 million, and 3% over €3 million, which it hopes would raise €8.7 billion for public investment. Based on the existing wealth tax in France, the PTB/PvdA argues capital flight will be limited. But the French tax collects €4.4 billion a year, half the proclaimed target of the PTB/PvdA in an economy five-and-a-half times the size of Belgium’s. Once again only nationalisation of the financial sector and the major companies under democratic control of workers and the community can deliver the necessary means to start tackling the urgent need for investment in school buildings, railways, hospitals and elderly homes, social housing, energy-neutral public buildings, environment protection, etc.

For a united front against cuts

For new left formations the question of coalitions is crucial. In the 2012 council elections the PTB/PvdA won 17% in the Antwerp district of Borgerhout. Then it joined a coalition with the Social Democrats, Greens and a former Christian Democrat sitting as an independent. Peter Mertens declared on the PTB/PvdA website: “We are not also going to hand over Borgerhout to the NV-A. [NV-A leader] Bart De Wever has chosen Antwerp as the test case for his future independent republic of Flanders… Starting from our programme we will, as much as possible, help to put a social programme on the map. That is also what all those people who voted for us expect from us”.

Only recently, the PTB/PvdA came under attack by a right-wing academic: “Nothing has changed in the content of what the PTB/PvdA puts forward, their starting point is still Marxism-Leninism and their ultimate goal the ideal socialist state without private property”. In reply, Mertens calls this “a grotesque absurdity. We’re not basing ourselves on Marxism-Leninism and are not in favour of a system without private property. We are a modern Marxist party as the Socialist Party in the Netherlands is and Die Linke in Germany”.

Notwithstanding our criticisms, LSP/PSL recognises that the PTB/PvdA will be an integral part of the process of reorganising the workers’ movement. We have a long record of proposing to the PTB/PvdA different forms of collaboration in the spirit of striking together, while marching separately. For example, the LSP/PSL participates, as the PTB/PvdA does, in the organisational committee set up by the Charleroi union federation.

The majority of PTB/PvdA voters have nothing to do with the old Stalinist baggage. They see the PTB/PvdA as the party of Medicine for the People, that denounces the excesses of capitalism, and which sounds different from other parties in the media. They consider the PTB/PvdA as the party that finally represents a left-wing project in a political landscape dominated by the right.

The PTB/PvdA did form a bloc under the name PTB- GO (Open Left) for its francophone list and PvdA+ for its Flemish lists. There are a few left-wing independents, academics, artists, etc, on these lists and also some candidates from the LCR and the CP. We did discuss with the PTB/PvdA the possibility of LSP/PSL candidates but they were clear: “LSP aims to build just like we do, that’s a problem. The LCR and CP who have candidates on our list have largely abandoned that ambition. LSP/PSL won’t omit to distribute leaflets and sell papers. The PTB/PvdA has a lot of new members, who don’t fully understand the programme yet. With the presence of LSP/PSL the PTB/PvdA will have to spend more energy on explaining the differences than on its election campaign”. The PTB/PvdA, in other words, only accepts individuals and organisations on its lists who do not question its programme. Nevertheless, LSP/PSL is campaigning for a vote for PTB-GO in the Walloon area and PvdA+ in the Flemish area, especially where they have a real chance to win seats.

In Brussels, LSP/PSL will participate in the elections under the banner Gauche Commune, a coalition with the small radical left Parti Humaniste and some independent left-wing individuals, because the electoral rules there allow for different lists to combine their results to reach the election threshold. Unfortunately, the PTB/PvdA has made such an agreement with a small regionalist list, Pro-Bruxelles, and a unitary list, Belgique Unie België, two organisations that are politically on the right, while refusing at this stage a bloc with Gauche Commune.

The elections are only weeks away. The completely understandable feeling of anticipation over a probable electoral breakthrough on the left should not obscure the fact that austerity rolls on. It would be great to have left-wing MPs putting the case of ordinary people, not only in the streets and in meetings, but also in the media. At the same time, resistance has to be built from now on.

This month unions organised a number of demonstrations against attacks on the unemployed and in defence of wages and benefits. On 4 April the European

TUC is organising a Europe-wide demo in Brussels. The left and the more combative unions should seize on this, organise a large meeting, and start to build a front of resistance against cuts and social attacks, including an action plan of regional demonstrations, strikes and occupations when faced with closures and restructuring. If the PTB/PvdA were to use the parliamentary platform to popularise this together with others, including ourselves, such a front of resistance could become a crucial instrument in the defence of workers and poor.

Glossary of organisations

The Workers Party of Belgium is one national party – Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA) in Flemish and Parti du Travail de Belgique (PTB) in French.

The Left Socialist Party/Socialist Party of Struggle – Linkse Socialistische Partij (LSP) in Flemish, Parti Socialiste de Lutte (PSL) in French, is also a national party, a part of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI). It is the second largest extra-parliamentary party

in Belgium after the WPB.

The third largest radical left force is the Communist Party. It is split along national lines in two distinct parties: Parti Communiste (Wallonie-Bruxelles), and Kommunistische Partij Vlaanderen – the latter has virtually disappeared.

The fourth largest is the Revolutionary Communist League (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire – LCR – in French), and Socialist Workers’ Party (Socialistische Arbeiderspartij – SAP – in Flemish), representing the USFI.

Like every traditional party in Belgium the social democracy split in the 1970s into two distinct parties along national lines: the French language Parti Socialiste (PS) and Flemish language Sociaal Progressief Alternatief (SP.a).

The Greens are Ecolo (French) and Groen (Flemish).

There are two major trade union centres. One, historically linked to the social democracy, is the General Belgian Trade Union (in Flemish ABVV, in French FGTB). The other, historically linked to Christian Democracy, is the General Christian Trade Union (in Flemish ACV, in French CSC). Although some individual unions in those federations have split along national lines, such as the Christian Employees Unions, the Socialist Teachers’ Unions, and Metal Unions, both federations are still national organisations.

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April 2014