Belgian Elections: Multiple Alarm Signals for the Working Class

On June 9th, not only were European elections held in Belgium, but voters also went to the polls for both the regional and federal parliaments.

It was generally expected that the far-right party Vlaams Belang (VB) would follow the European trend and possibly become the largest party in the north of the country (Flanders). This expectation was partly due to developments in the Netherlands (the rise of Wilders’ PVV).

Media polls indicated that the Social Democratic Party (PS) would remain the largest in the South (Wallonia) and the PTB (Workers’ Party of Belgium- a New Left formation) would become the second-largest party. This would make it extremely difficult to form a federal government coalition with two completely different political landscapes in the two parts of the country.

The results show a somewhat different situation: Vlaams Belang has grown (21.8%, +3.2) but has not become the largest party, and the ‘moderate’ right has taken the initiative in forming coalitions in the two regions, which suits the strategists of the bourgeoisie.

For the working class, certain elements of the results are hopeful (mainly due to the gains of PTB), but the situation is already flashing alarm lights.

“Shift to the right”?

A more detailed analysis does not show “a general shift to the right” but, instead, an expression of enormous discontent and a polarized society. Many votes for the far-right are, in fact, protest votes against the establishment. Additionally, one in eight voters stayed at home, and there are also a significant number of blank votes.

The different parties of the ‘mainstream’ right managed to influence the election campaign in their favor and thus finish first themselves.

In the north, for example, the liberal party collapsed (8.7%, -4.8) in favor of the “moderate” nationalists of the NVA (neo-liberal in the economic field) (25%, -0.5).

In the south, the liberals won with a populist campaign (28.2%, +7.7), and the centrist party was resurrected (20%, +9.3). The Socialist Party came slightly behind (22%, -4.1). The biggest losers were the Greens (6.5%, -8), even more so than in the north (7.4%, -2.4).

The extreme right made an appearance in Wallonia with 4% (which has to be taken seriously into account, as VB also started with similar results in 1991).

Belgium and the National Question

In Belgium, the bourgeoisie has been using the national question for decades to sow division at times when it could no longer manage things easily. In the 1970s, for example, all Belgian governments were unstable and short-lived. The long period of growth (1950-1974) came to an end, and the class struggle intensified with the onset of the ’73-’74 oil crisis, marked by high unemployment and inflation. During this period, the strategists of the bourgeoisie always tried to put the national question on the agenda. Often, after movements of the working class that had ended in failure, a difference between north and south was emphasized, thus pitting the different sections of the working class against each other.

For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, all the traditional parties split along national lines (including the social democratic party). After a number of state reforms with regionalization of powers (culture, education, but also economic policy), a traditional Flemish nationalist party (VU) disappeared from the scene. This gave rise to both a ‘moderate’ right-wing nationalist party (NVA) and a more hard-line far-right party (Vlaams Belang). Both put forward the slogan for an independent Flanders as the solution to all problems, since according to them, the Walloon south has been responsible for the excess expenditure and therefore for the national debt. On top of that, VB waged an anti-migrant campaign to shift the blame for austerity.

Vlaams Belang first broke through in 1991 with 6.6% (+1.9). The NVA grew later, partly at the expense of the (former Christian) centrist party. NVA adopted some radical positions of Vlaams Belang, partly because both parties appealed to the same audience. For example, in 2014, the NVA joined a center-right government and openly said it would put aside its program for self-government for a while to first put budgetary matters in order. It also provided a secretary of state for migration, who used tougher language and advocated a tougher approach for the deportation of refugees. At the end of 2018, the NVA left that government because it opposed the signing of the UN ‘Marrakech’ Convention. This anti-migration stance has not had the intended result. Instead of the NVA benefiting from this, VB grew even more.

This was followed in 2019 by a government with almost all (7) traditional parties (the so-called Vivaldi coalition). The NVA governed as the largest party in Flanders while opposing the federal government. In a long period before the elections of June 9, two strategies for an independent Flanders were formulated. The VB said it would vote for a declaration of independence in the Flemish parliament and negotiate the division with Wallonia (a perilous plan, considering the outcome in Catalonia). The NVA launched the theory of the two democracies and the need for confederalism. According to that theory, since Flanders is on the right and Wallonia on the left, both parts of the country had to decide as much as possible for themselves and only have ‘common halls’ such as foreign policy, defense, and joint management. This also meant that social security would be split up and the regions would each be able to set up a competitive system.

Government puzzle

Vlaams Belang stood with a populist program “for the protection of purchasing power”, while NVA made it clear that there had to be an austerity policy.

The media for a long time focused on the possibility that the two Flemish nationalist parties together could win a majority in the North and thus form a government. For the south of the country, this was a horror scenario.

In the beginning, the campaign was focused mainly on the need to restore purchasing power and improve services (public transport, childcare, medical care, education, etc.). There was also dissatisfaction with the inability of the political system to manage the flow of refugees and its social consequences (backlog of cases, lack of accommodation after arrival, lack of resources for integration).

In the end, the NVA made it clear that it did not want to govern with VB at the Flemish level and that it wanted to participate in the federal government. It ensured that the campaign was not centrally focused on migration. The NVA argued that migration is a federal matter and that VB would not be involved.

The Left and VB talked about the cost of living crisis. The right and center were talking about austerity and the European objectives. The NVA tried to frighten people by stating at one point that it did not want to become Greece on the North Sea,” in which Europe and the IMF would intervene directly.

Vlaams Belang showed its true face when the discussion briefly turned to the rights of LGBTQ+ and transgender people. NVA remained studiously silent about this. By openly distancing itself from the VB, it was able to attract voters from the Flemish liberals (Open VLD) and completely deflate that party (8.7%, -4.8).

In this way, the NVA remained the largest party instead of VB. This does not alter the fact that VB is the largest party in almost half of the Flemish municipalities, especially in the countryside. In the other half, NVA is the largest, except for a few cities. This will have consequences in the municipal elections in October this year.

PTB and PS

In Wallonia, the liberals (28.2%, +7.7) and the centrist party (20%, +9.3) got a majority together. At the federal level, the latter two, together with the NVA, form an axis around which a coalition will be formed. After all, the theory of the two democracies has been undermined.

In Flanders, while left-wing parties such as PTB and the Greens pointed to the danger of a victory of the extreme right, the centrist parties and the Social Democrats stressed the existence of two extremes (left and right) in order to damage the PTB. In Wallonia, the situation was somewhat different because of the almost complete absence of the extreme right. There, the right-wing parties argued that the PS allowed itself to be dragged by PTB, whereupon the PS responded by stating that the PTB’s program was not feasible. A lot of the PS’s energy has gone into attacking PTB with the accusation that they did not want to co-govern.

In the middle of the campaign, PTB changed its strategy and said that they wanted to talk to PS and Ecolo (Greens) about a left-wing coalition. In Flanders, PTB accused the Social Democrats of looking at the NVA rather than PTB, which in turn was a suggestion for cooperation. In Wallonia, these strategies have cost both parties votes: PS 22% (-4.1) and PTB 11.6% (-1.5).

PTB had a left-wing program, but not clearly anti-capitalist. The ‘millionaires’ tax’, was used as a slogan, but not explained as a transitional demand. The proposal is like a technical intervention to balance the budget and not have to get the money from workers. The way in which the measure would be applied remained very vague. The campaign was not very mobilizing and was more like the campaigns of other parties. Suggesting to go into coalition with the Social Democrats and the Greens cast doubt on the novelty and radicality of the program.

The formation of coalitions threatens to take hold in the bilingual region of Brussels. On the Dutch-speaking side, the Greens are the largest; on the French-speaking side, the liberal MR was the winner. To form a coalition in Brussels, a total of at least 6 parties will be needed.

A warning

The bourgeoisie sees its opportunity to implement austerity on the backs of the workers with the formation of center-right governments. The European Commission’s reports are already being used for this purpose. There would be cuts in health insurance. Unemployment benefits would be limited to 2 years. These are just a few examples. Against this, trade union mass movements will be necessary.

The mass demonstrations of recent years and even those of the last few weeks (in education) show the strength of the workers’ movement.

The Flemish Social Democrats have been asked to join the coalitions in Flanders and at the federal level, and it looks like they’re going to accept. The party leadership has made certain demands to participate, but it is an illusion that they could make a difference. In this way, they would become jointly responsible for the cuts.

On the other side, the NVA will insist on talks on a constitutional revision. Because the views on such a revision are so far apart, the strategists of the bourgeoisie would make public opinion focus entirely on national contradictions.

A crucial warning is that the far right, although not currently in office, has grown significantly. Its propaganda will likely push the overall political agenda further to the right. The working class will need to organize itself effectively to halt the further rise of the far right and combat its racist rhetoric.

The outcome of the upcoming municipal elections will also influence the political landscape in both directions. The recent elections have served as a warning, but the real battle is still ahead.

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