|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Belgium: the continuing far-right threat
OCTOBER’S LOCAL elections in Belgium saw new electoral advances by the far-right, especially the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest, formerly Vlaams Blok). In its first election contest since its forced name change in 2004 – after a conviction for racism – the Vlaams Belang (VB) won 794 councillors, compared to 459 in the last council elections in 2000.
Despite this advance, the national media focussed on the VB results in the cities of Antwerp and Ghent where the party did not gain, claiming that VB had been defeated. The traditional parties and their lackeys in the media quickly stated the supposed reason for that ‘defeat’: in Antwerp and Ghent the local authorities had shown that with ‘good governance’ the far-right can be beaten.
But that is not the case. In Antwerp the VB vote went from 33% in 2000 to 33.5% in 2006. That is no reason for celebration. In Ghent it is true that the VB lost a little but, given the resources for its campaign there, this comes as no surprise. The traditional parties in Ghent, furthermore, maximised media attention on the outgoing mayor and the fact that the Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt and vice-premier Van den Bossche were candidates in the city.
In Antwerp the VB lost in the city-centre districts of Antwerp-central and Borgerhout. The party, however, gained a lot in the surrounding districts. In Deurne, Merksem and Hoboken the VB got respectively 43.5%, 41.5% and 41%. In Hoboken all the parties have formed an alliance to keep the VB off the district authority, even though that means negotiating with the far-left PVDA/PTB (Workers’ Party Belgium, a Maoist group) which won two district councillors.
The traditional parties and the media saw the result as a victory for the outgoing coalition in Antwerp and Ghent. This is not true. It was a victory of well worked out media and publicity campaigns of some leading figures. In Antwerp the mayor, Patrick Janssens, won a stunning 72,000 preference votes (this means about 25% of all the voters gave him a preferential vote). This pushed his party, the social democratic SP.a (Socialist Party, Different), to 35.3% of the vote (compared to 19.5% in 2000).
This was not a victory for Janssens’ party, however, let alone his coalition of all the traditional parties, as it might appear at first sight. The right-wing VLD (Flemish Liberal Democrats, Verhofstadt’s party) did not even manage to get 10% in Flanders’ biggest city: its vote fell from 16% to 9.7%. The Greens lost four of their six councillors. Only the CD&V (Christian-Democratic & Flemish party) managed to remain stable at 11.6%, but did not gain from its electoral alliance with the nationalist NVA (New Flemish Alliance). In fact, the Vlaams Belang leader Filip Dewinter was correct to say that Janssens had cannibalised his coalition partners.
Neither was Janssens’ result a victory for his own party, as his campaign did not make a link to his party affiliation. This led to some uproar inside the SP.a, where some of the activists refused to campaign for him. Two weeks before the council elections, he could not even mobilise 50 people for a publicity bike-tour through the city. Janssens won votes from all the traditional parties, including his own! It will lead to a further increase in the use of spin doctors and US-style publicity campaigns.
The Vlaams Belang was not able to make progress in the two city centre districts of Antwerp. In Borgerhout the VB had made its historic breakthrough in the 1988 council elections, but now lost 5% compared to 2000. The VB claims that the reason is the change in the social composition of the area, especially the increase in the number of immigrants.
Indeed, there has been a change in the social composition. But the main difference is not the increase of immigrants who can vote. Since the first national electoral breakthrough of the VB in 1991, the federal and regional governments have invested in the big cities in the Flemish area, above all in projects of city-marketing and projects aimed at attracting a richer layer. These developments have increased house prices and have pushed a layer of poorer people outside the city centre. Instead of providing solutions to the problems in the big cities, the authorities have pushed the problems to the areas around the city centre. This can be seen in the electoral results of the VB, with its big gains in those areas outside the town centre.
The media attention on the VB results in the centre of Antwerp and in Ghent has lessened the pressure on the traditional parties to go into coalition with the VB at local level. The so-called ‘cordon sanitaire’, a political agreement not to form any coalition with the VB, has survived the council elections. Of course, the Left Socialist Party/Movement for a Socialist Alternative (LSP/MAS – CWI Belgium) opposes any participation of the VB in local authorities or governments. But a political agreement not to form any coalitions with the VB does not give an answer to the reasons why people vote for the VB. It will not, therefore, stop the electoral growth of this party.
The cordon sanitaire also will not lead to splits inside the VB, between those who are aiming for a career and are prepared to compromise their political beliefs for governmental jobs, and the ‘hardliners’. Such a split would only become possible if the VB is in a more defensive position following workers’ struggles that put other issues on the political agenda than those advanced by the VB.
After the cordon sanitaire the politicians and media now have found a new central argument against the far-right. Now we are being told that the VB can be defeated through ‘good governance’, and that Janssens proves that with his electoral success. This tends towards the idea that only a group of ‘technocrats’ and specialists can offer a solution. With a growing crisis of confidence in politicians, some tend to put their hopes in so-called ‘independent’ experts. This will not, however, offer a way forward. It is reminiscent of how the Belgian capitalists tried to get out of the political crisis in the 1930s by appointing a top official of the national bank as an ‘independent’ prime minister; Paul Van Zeeland led a government of ‘experts’ from 1935. The result in the 1936 elections was clear: an even bigger polarisation, with record votes for the fascists but also for the Communist Party.
The question is what is meant by ‘good governance’, and what class content is being given to that idea? None of the establishment parties will choose the side of the majority of the population, the workers and their families. The only way to stop the far-right is by opposing the politics of the neo-liberal parties which only offer unemployment, higher prices, lower wages and longer working weeks for the workers. The far-right can grow on the basis of a passive discontent. Active resistance is needed, but with a political instrument to organise and strengthen this resistance.
Anti-fascists have to give a political answer to the voters of the Vlaams Belang and will need a new formation of the workers’ movement based on active involvement in struggles to do so. The movement ‘for different politics’ (CAP), around former MPs Jef Sleeckx and Lode Van Outrive, and former European Trade Union Confederation president Georges Debunne, offers the best possibility in years.
In the council elections there were some good results for the Maoist Workers’ Party Belgium, tripling its number of councillors to 15. This party will be quickly tested. In Hoboken it might enter into a coalition with the establishment parties. At the same time, the party says it has been ‘renewed’. In the words of one of its councillors, the party is less radical today and even accepts elements of the market economy.
Jef Sleeckx said at a national launch conference of a new left formation on 28 October in Brussels (with over 600 present) that there is a huge potential for a serious formation to the left of the establishment parties. The LSP/MAS agrees on the need for a broad new workers’ party, and supports any practical steps in this direction. There is a huge potential for such an initiative. The new left formation will have its first participation in the national elections of 2007.
LSP/MAS (CWI Belgium)