Belgium: Socialist candidate wins more than a third of the vote

The recent internal leadership elections in the Flemish Socialist Party revealed a very militant mood in the ranks of the party. The two left candidates Erik De Bruyn and Elke Heirman received an amazing 33.6% of the votes, preparing the ground for the re-emergence of s strong left wing in the party.

In a previous article (read  Belgium: Socialist Left candidate nominated for elections of party chairperson! by Wim Benda) we explained how Erik De Bruyn, a well known supporter of the Marxist tendency was nominated as a candidate for the election of chairperson of the Flemish Socialist Party of Belgium.

After a two-month campaign in the party branches, the 58,000 members of the party had the opportunity to vote by post for the candidates that had been nominated: the candidates proposed by the party leadership Caroline Genez and Dirk Vandermaelen and the left slate of Eric De Bruyn and Elke Heirman.

The result of the vote was made public in a national congress on 21 October. Genez was elected with 66.4%, but the left-wing candidates got an astonishing 33.6%. Even more astonishing than this result were the interventions of the rank and file during the congress.

After the devastating result in the last parliamentary elections, the party leadership could not escape the criticism that it had neglected the party branches. Speakers from the branches were allowed to address the congress and no less than 24 of them took the opportunity to do so. They talked about party democracy and the duty of the leadership to listen to the rank and file. They said that party congresses are meant for democratic decision making, not to be used as media shows. They stressed the need for unity in action with the trade unions (many speakers raised this). They pleaded against all divisions of the Belgian institutions along language lines and for internationalist solidarity.

A worker who had been a candidate in the last election said that it was not enough to put workers on the election lists, but that the party leadership should listen to the workers and discuss with them in the working places.

Many speakers challenged the official party line of "equal chances" with the fact that poverty has doubled over the last 20 years in Belgium: one in 7 people now live below the poverty line. They raised this together with the need to control the prices of basic goods, such as food and heating, through state intervention.

All these demands were first put forward by the "sp.a Rood" left wing of the party during this campaign. The points were taken up so eagerly by the rank and file that most of them instantly accepted them as their own. Even those speakers who expressed support for Caroline Genez used arguments of the left wing. Eric De Bruyn hit the nail on the head when he said after the congress that the left wing had obtained 33% of the votes but it had won at least 66% of the argument!

The other issue that was on the mind of most speakers was the formation of the new government. For136 days now the main right-wing parties have been negotiating the formation of a new government. The main stumbling block throughout this time has been the reform of the state along more nationalist lines. But while they are divided on this issue, they have far less of a problem on agreeing on attacks on social welfare, promoting nuclear energy, curtailing the right to strike, etc.

Many speakers warned the congress against "those nasty rightists", as Fred Patrie a comrade in his eighties and the star of this congress put it. The same comrade recalled the time when he became socialist as a youngster during the Second World War and in the resistance against the Nazis (both the German Nazis and the home-grown Nazis within the Flemish nationalists). He attacked "those capitalist thieves" who got rich through tax fraud and called for a tax on the big fortunes. He cited with astonishing accuracy a list of figures to prove that it is perfectly possible to pay for the pensions of the future generations, in spite of what the right wing is saying on this subject. His speech was met with a thunderous applause and ended with the words of the Internationale.

Everyone who took part agreed that this was the best congress the Socialist Party had had for many decades. The warm enthusiasm for socialism was apparent to everyone, not the fake enthusiasm that emanates from show congresses organised by professional spin-doctors. And what was at the root of this enthusiasm was several months of sometimes very sharp discussion, a discussion of all the basic problems that confront the Socialist Party and the working class in this society.

Many speakers called for unity against the forthcoming government. This was also the bottom line of the few speakers from the party leadership who addressed the congress. The left wing has no problem with this, but it should not be the kind of unity that is used to silence the rank and file! Real unity can only be the result of fraternal discussion and we are confident that in such a discussion socialist ideas will prevail.

For the first time in decades a genuine left wing is taking shape within the Socialist Party of Flanders. Tens if not hundreds of party activists have been showing interest in our ideas. Now we are setting us the task of organising them. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. The main organisations of the Flemish and Belgian working class are the Trade Unions, with their 2.8 million-strong membership. Some of them are still members of the Socialist Party, but many have ceased to be members, repelled by the right-wing leadership. But they are surely watching what is happening now very carefully. The Belgian working class has one of the most militant traditions in the world. If the "sp.a Rood" left wing plays the role it should, it could be the motor for the retaking of the Socialist Party by the working class.

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