Federal elections in Belgium - a more marked left-right polarisation is emerging

The recent Belgian elections underline one thing, a deepening social and political polarisation, in line with what is happening in the rest of Europe. Erik Demeester in Brussels analyses the results. Belgian political history knows few examples where the main parties of an outgoing government coalition have actually substantially increased their votes in the elections. But this was the case with the result of the Socialist and Liberal parties in Sunday's (May 18) federal elections. The Liberals saw their number of seats increase in parliament by 8. In the Senate they gained two seats.

The two Socialist parties (one for each main language group, Dutch and French) gained 14 seats in Parliament and 4 in the Senate. The Socialists were those who gained the most in these elections. This was the biggest gain for the Socialists in15 years. If we count the actual number of votes, the Socialists have emerged as the biggest political grouping on a federal level. In the Dutch speaking part of the country (Flanders) the Socialists (who stood in a cartel with a "progressive" split off group that emerged from the break up of the Flemish Nationalist Party) have becomes the second party and in the French speaking part (the Walloon area) they have strengthened their already strong pole position.

This situation is a result of the recent period in which here has been economic growth in Belgium. To this we should add the fact that in the recent period they were able to achieve budget surpluses (based on 20 years of austerity) that are indeed rare occurrences. This had given them a certain margin for some limited social reforms and increased employment. Of course this was a temporary situation and was still taking place against the background of creeping privatisation lavish handouts to the bosses. These factors created the conditions for a partial regrouping of social forces in Belgium around the two main political poles, the Liberals and the Socialists. The Socialists were able to create a left wing image for themselves in the last period, at least superficially, which they gained from. But statistical studies indicate that most of the Socialist voters are not enthusiastic supporters of the party, but rather part of a critical social layer on the periphery of the party.

There had been a fragmentation of the political landscape in Belgium that had developed over the last 10 to 15 years. This was the result of a crisis of confidence of all the social classes in what would have been their traditional political expression. This now seems to have receded. This process has been undoubtedly enhanced by the new electoral law which excludes from parliamentary representation all parties who do not get at least 5% of the votes. But more importantly another fundamental trend was at play in these elections. There is a deepening social polarisation between the classes all over Europe and this is also reflected in the Belgian context, and this undoubtedly carries more weight in explaining what happened in the recent Belgian elections.

Evaporation of the Green parties

Even more marked is the scope of the electoral rout of the Green parties who had participated for the first time ever in a coalition government. In the French speaking area they lost seven seats in parliament and are thus left with only four, and four in the Senate leaving them with only two. But in the Dutch speaking part of the country the Greens have been completely eliminated! Here they lost all of their nine members of parliament and also their four senators.

Their support literally evaporated during these elections. Most Green voters shifted their support to the Socialists on both sides of the language divide. Many disillusioned Socialist and Christian Democratic voters had supported the Green parties in the elections four years ago. To achieve this the Green parties had cultivated a left, even a pro trade union image. But once in the government the Greens went from crisis to crisis, from capitulation to capitulation on all the main issues they had traditionally been known for (arms export, US military transportation for the war in Iraq, etc.). The Greens from the French speaking side even abandoned the coalition two weeks before the elections in a cheap and desperate effort to gain some credibility. It was to no avail. The leaders of the Greens of course try to explain away this electoral catastrophe by referring to the exaggerated expectations of their rank and file that became impossible to satisfy. Indeed many Green voters have been cruelly deceived by the performance of these so-called "alternative" politicians. In an open letter to his party after the elections one Green activist denounced his party for rapidly transforming itself into a ‘traditional party'.

The extreme right gained from government's social cuts

The elections also confirm the long-term trend of decline of the two Christian Democratic parties. These parties have always been traditionally linked to the Christian workers' movement, the majority trend in the Belgian labour movement. It's from this unique position that this bourgeois party derived its exceptional and dominating role throughout most of Belgium's history. In the Dutch speaking North the party lost another seat in parliament as well as in the Senate. In the French speaking South they lost two seats in parliament and one in the Senate. This party has been the main political pillar of the bourgeois class in Belgium, a role that is now increasingly being played by the Liberals.

The persistence of big pockets of poverty, social insecurity and frustration even during the recent economic boom has succeeded in strengthening further the extreme right wing party, the Vlaams Blok in the Dutch speaking part of the country. The Vlaams Blok, unlike many extreme right wing parties in Europe, has succeeded in gaining some stability. This is the tenth successive electoral victory for this party. It has gained a further three seats in parliament and one in the Senate. This positions the Vlaams Blok, with a little more than 18% of the votes, as the fourth biggest party. In Antwerp, the second biggest city of Belgium, it has strengthens its position as the first party. In the South also the Front National won an average of 5% of the vote with some highpoints in the old industrial areas of Charleroi and Hainaut where it got more than 10% of the votes.

There is a difference however between the results of the extreme right wing in the North and the South. In the North the Vlaams Blok is an established party with cadres, branches, papers and campaigns. This is not the case for the Front National in the South, which is largely a shell of a party with very few leaders and no campaigning on the ground at all. Many people noted that during these elections the FN did not campaign even though it had presented lists.

Those French-speaking parties who had claimed that the South was largely immune from the extreme right wing now have to face reality and accept that support for such groups does not stop at the language border. The same social and political conditions favour similar developments also in the South.

The Socialist parties and the Liberals will now form a new government without the Green parties. The Socialist parties are demanding a more "socially" orientated government in response to the new balance of forces. The economic situation facing the country is now different from the one which the earlier government had benefited from. The recession is biting and the margins for even limited social reforms have been squeezed. This will lead to more tension within the government itself, thus leading to further polarisation between the Liberals and the Socialists. The experience of the policies of this government will represent an important school for the working class and the youth. They will come to understand the real meaning of reformist policies. It will be a situation in which workers and youth will be seeking a genuine socialist policy and programme. Only the Marxists can offer them this and thus the period that opens up is one of greater opportunity to build up the genuine forces of Marxism within the Belgian labour movement.

May 19, 2003.

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