Belgium: Government in trouble after local elections

Workers’ resistance must be stepped up!


“The Swedish coalition [nickname of the Belgian federal government] survives, but it has severely been put to the test. Its viability is threatened. The left is in full motion, but is still not an alternative. The extremes of the right and left are progressing. The political landscape has not become more stable.” This is how the newspaper De Standaard, the most widely read Dutch-language quality daily newspaper, summarised the situation following the local elections (provincial and municipal) held on 14 October in Belgium.

The federal government of Prime Minister, Charles Michel, came to power in 2014. It is a right-wing coalition of the Flemish nationalists (N-VA), the Flemish Christian Democratic Party (CD&V), the Flemish Liberals (Open VLD) and the French-speaking Liberals of the MR. Since then, the government has caused widespread dissatisfaction. In particular, attacks on pensions have been the subject of a massive rejection by the population, which has been widely illustrated by all opinion polls.

The 14 October elections were local elections, but they were a test before the May 2019 “mother of all elections”, where voters will simultaneously vote in regional, federal and European elections.

The federal government parties have done everything possible to relegate social discontent to the background by diverting attention to issues such as migrants, identity or security. But in the final stages of the elections, several trade union mobilisations brought social issues back to the forefront, the most important of which was the day of action on 2 October, which saw 65,000 people participate in various rallies in the country’s major cities. (see our article:

These themes arrived relatively late in the campaign. The result shows that the ruling parties have been hurt, but that more is needed, certainly on the Flemish side, to avoid a continuation of the Michel government after May 2019.

A slap in the face for the government parties

If we extrapolate the results of the federal elections from those obtained on 14 October, the ‘Swedish coalition’ would completely lose its large majority (85 seats out of 150) at the federal level, falling to 73 seats. It would then be necessary to take on board the French-speaking Christian Democrats of the CDH, who are themselves in electoral free-fall, but that would be a coalition of five losers.

While the three Flemish government parties together still won 58.1% of the Flemish electorate, this is 6.4% less than in the 2012 local elections and 8.5% points less than in the 2014 federal elections. The “left” parties (the Flemish social democrats of the SP.a, the green party (Groen) and the radical left party, PTB) together gained 26.6%. Although they are still far from being elected, despite the SP.a’s continued loss of votes, the gap between these parties and the ruling parties shrank by 11% compared to 2012.

The far right Vlaams Belang has absorbed much of the N-VA’s losses and is recovering strongly from its lowest level in 2014. Compared to 2012, VB gained 4% and 7.9% compared to 2014, but the party is still far from its monster score of 21.5% in 2006. The rise of the VB confirms what we have systematically stressed: as long as the policy of social disruption and exclusion continues, it is premature to declare the death of the VB. As soon as the N-VA’s balloon empties, the VB’s balloon can be filled. The fight against the extreme right is therefore far from over.

In Wallonia and especially in Brussels, the PS (social democrats) is very happy that its losses were limited to 7.9% (giving it 25.9%) after a series of recent scandals. The party thus maintained its position in all the major central cities, Liège, Charleroi, La Louvière, Mons and Tournai and managed to win back Molenbeek and Koekelberg in Brussels. The liberals of the MR and the Christian Democrats of the CDH did not benefit from this decline, and they too are retreating.

The French-speaking green party, ECOLO, is the overall winner, winning 16.2%, to such an extent that there has been talk of a “green wave”, especially in Brussels. The environmental issue has certainly played an important role, but ECOLO’s success in Brussels can also be partly explained by the fact that it is considered tolerant towards refugees and undocumented migrants. It is probably the most popular party in the solidarity movement against the government’s brutal migration policy.

The left alternative

The traditional left – the Social Democrats and the Greens – has no solution. At most, their programme is a watered-down version of the right-wing one. Their politicians have sometimes adopted a similar lifestyle and arrogance. Their sledgehammer argument, the “lesser evil”, is increasingly more absurd.

But there was also a “bright red” wave for the PTB/Pvda, which increased by 7.2% compared to 2012 winning 10% of the votes. The PTB has achieved remarkable results, particularly in Wallonia: 24% in Herstal and Seraing, 16.3% in Liège and 15.7% in Charleroi. This former-Maoist party have now more than 150 local elected representatives, mainly in Wallonia and Brussels. This shows that the search for an alternative to the traditional parties is taking on a new dimension.

Many people feel the urgency to put an end to the social disruption and aspire to a fundamental change in policy. This is what the Walloon Regional Secretary of the socialist trade union FGTB expressed when he called in September 2017 for the constitution of a future left-wing majority (PS-ECOLO-PTB) in the Walloon region in 2019.

This unprecedented call was then translated into a call to form “progressive coalitions wherever possible” in this local election campaign. Faced with the PS’s desire to prefer to conclude majority agreements with the MR, the FGTB also carried out a public protest in Liège when the PS received a delegation from the MR. Throughout the province of Liège, the FGTB also threatened to break the rental contracts of local branches of the PS in buildings belonging to the FGTB. Nevertheless the PS preferred to form alliances with the right.

Immediately after the elections, there were discussions on the French-speaking side between the PS and the PTB to conclude deals to form a municipal majority in Charleroi, Liège, Herstal and Molenbeek (a Brussels municipality). For the PS, the issue was obvious from the beginning: to illustrate that it is impossible to reach an agreement with the PTB, that this party does not want to participate in power and that a vote for this party makes no sense.

We believe, however, that things went differently in Molenbeek. The PTB went into the negotiations with a very modest programme of social measures, worth €5.3 million and financed by a series of taxes. Elsewhere, in Charleroi, for example, the PTB had added to its demands that the budgetary straitjacket imposed by the higher authorities must be broken. We believe that this was added to their negotiation proposals in Charleroi and not in Molenbeek, because the PTB was convinced from the beginning that the PS was only putting on a show in Charleroi and not serious, so the PTB could appear radical.

In Molenbeek, ECOLO left the negotiations first, with the PTB then stating that there was too great an imbalance between the PS and the PTB in the municipal majority. This illustrates that the PTB does not imagine that work within the municipal council can be supported by active mobilization from outside and vice versa. But the most important thing is that the PTB did not leave the negotiations on the basis of the programme, but on the basis of the distribution of positions.

Finally, it is in Flanders, in Zelzate, that the PTB will for the first time participate in a municipal majority, alongside the Flemish social democrats of the SP.a. The imbalance between the PTB and its coalition partner that the PTB denounced in Molenbeek will nevertheless be very present there. As for the programme, it is also a very modest programme. The opportunity was missed to make this municipality an example of a break with austerity policies by introducing the demands from the labour movement, such as a minimum wage of €14 per hour, the reduction of working hours with without loss of pay for municipal staff or an ambitious plan to build social housing.

We must intensify the social resistance!

We have repeatedly proposed to the PTB to discuss together how best to strengthen its campaign, including with candidates from the PSL (CWI in Belgium). Given that the PTB is currently seen as the only credible instrument for the entire workers’ movement and the left against right-wing politics, we believe that it would have been better if this situation had been reflected in the PTB lists. But the PTB refused this.

The PTB could have used the call for a left-wing coalition from the Walloon FGTB to defend an action plan for massive public investment in social housing, schools, nursing and employment with a collective reduction in working hours without loss of pay and the hiring of new staff to compensate for the cut to working hours. It could have called for communal councils to rebel and form a front against the fiscal straitjacket in which the federal and regional authorities maintain on our local areas. In this way, it could have built a front from the bottom up to make the progressive coalition proposed by the FGTB a reality and the true representative of the workers’, youth and social movements. Unfortunately, this was not the case before the elections of 14 October, but the same method can also be used in the period before the elections in May.

If we do not ensure ourselves that social issues such as pensions, wages, social benefits and public services are defended in an offensive way, then May’s elections will focus on the issues that others determine, from their right-wing perspective. To avoid this, social resistance must be strengthened. Trade unions have a role to play in this regard. It is therefore an excellent thing that union protests against the federal government leading up to a day of action on 14 December, have been announced but they have to be continued and developed in the new year.

Regional meetings of activists and workplace meetings are needed to prepare new actions. At the same time, campaigns must be launched against anti-social measures at a local level and around demands such as the accessibility of affordable housing. If it moves into action, the workers’ movement will be able to take steps forward. Offensive demands and clear objectives, such as the end of austerity policies or the doubling of the number of social housing units, can increase participation in actions. In our opinion, this should be linked to a perspective of social change: capitalism leads to an increase in inequalities and social tensions.

This is what we have highlighted with the electoral lists in which we participated in Saint-Gilles in Brussels (Gauches Communes) and Keerbergen (LSP-Consequent Links) where we obtained 2.28% and 2% respectively. This is also what we have defended elsewhere while calling for a vote in for the PTB. We must break with capitalism to build a socialist society based on satisfying the needs of the population rather than on the thirst for profit of the ultra-rich.

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November 2018