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Issue 52, October 2000

Belgium election's polarised results

THE OPINION polls were proved wrong in Belgium's October local elections as the far-right Vlaams Blok, for the seventh time in a row, increased its support. In Antwerpen the Blok's vote rose by 4% to reach 33%, well ahead of the other parties in this, the biggest city in Flanders. Vlaams Blok has at least one councillor in half of the Flemish cities.

This result, however, does not represent a general swing to the right in Belgian society, as the traditional parties claim. But it does show a huge reservoir of discontent with neo-liberal policies and anger at the utter failure of the trade union leaders to put forward an alternative.

The last general election, in June 1999, took place after food crises involving dioxin contamination of animal feed and health scares over Coca-Cola. A coalition government came to power involving the Walloon and Flemish liberal parties (PRL and VLD), their respective social democratic parties (PS and SP) and Green parties (Ecolo and Agalev). The Christian Democrats (CVP and PSC) were pushed into opposition for the first time in 42 years. This coalition can only be described as a six-party Blairite mishmash, with the liberals and social democrats in the driving seat. Recent economic growth, however, has allowed the government to take a break from spending cuts, and the spin-doctors were proclaiming the beginning of 'a new political culture'.

In the run-up to these latest elections, the prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt (VLD), boasted that there would be a budget surplus of 150 billion Belgian francs (£2.3bn) by 2005. But as the government announced plans to cut corporation tax and taxes for middle-class families, fuel protests hit Belgium. The transport employers' organisations, Febetra and SAV, were upstaged by the smaller and more militant UTPR which organises self-employed drivers in Walloonia, the French-speaking part of the country. Their action sparked-off the workers' movement. Spontaneous strikes developed in Liège and Charleroi. Steelworkers were followed by bus drivers, postal workers, warders and employees at Aldi stores, Daikin and Glaverbel, among others.


The trade union leaders, running behind the movement as usual, tried to control it by calling a national demonstration for 3 October. Expecting 10,000 workers, they were taken by surprise when 25,000 marched for higher wages and benefits. One journalist commentated: 'A few days of high tension has shown up the fragility of the paradise in which we live - if we believe the government... The truckers have taught us that euphoria can turn into anger and disillusionment'. The trade union leaders stepped in and sided with the government, supporting 'progressive' government ministers.

The elections produced a different political outcome in both parts of the country. In the Walloon area, PS and the Walloonian Greens, Ecolo, strengthened their positions. The neo-fascist parties, Front National (FN) and Agir, lost almost all their council seats. In La Louvière, FN lost all its council seats to the PS. In Walloonia as a whole, FN is hanging onto six seats in total. In Brussels they lost 44 out of 46 seats.

In Flanders, however, the Vlaams Blok and the liberal VLD were the election winners. The SP suffered big losses and the Flemish Greens, Agalev, polled 8.4%, down from 11.6% in the general election. In Gent, Beringen, Sint-Niklaas and Mechelen the Vlaams Blok got 20% or more of the vote. Although Flanders is one of the richest regions in the world, 7% of families live below the poverty line, with 15% in social insecurity (rising to 25% in cities like Antwerpen). One-in-five of these families depends on free food distributed by charities.


The traditional parties are incapable of fighting Vlaams Blok. They are responsible for the years of cuts in social security and jobs, attacks on the labour movement, and the degeneration of the inner cities. The Walloonian Christian democrats (CVP), the Flemish social democrats (SP) and Volksunie (VU - a Flemish nationalist party), all announced name changes a week after the elections - one of many signs that these parties are in severe crisis.

Vlaams Blok presents itself as an opposition to the government's policies. In reality, it votes for privatisation inside the city halls but campaigns against it once they are on the streets. The only force capable of exposing the Vlaams Blok would be a new workers' party, a left opposition to neo-liberal policies.

In December last year, Militant Links (Belgian CWI section) launched an appeal to all groups on the left of the social democrats and the Greens to form Left Alliances. Although we are aware that these alliances are not a new workers' party, they are an opportunity of presenting a left alternative and of rallying left-wing forces. In Gent we succeeded in uniting different campaigns against the policies of the city council. This list, LEEF! got 957 votes (0.7%). In Liège we had candidates on the Communist Party list which polled 1.2%. We also organised demonstrations and actions against the Vlaams Blok in Leuven, Oostende, Gent, Antwerpen and Brussels.

To be successful the campaign for a new workers' party must be linked to the building of a strong revolutionary organisation. To get rid of unemployment and poverty, to get rid of racism and fascism, we need socialism.


Karl Debbaut
Militant Links

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