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Home Opinion The Flemish Socialists' fightback finally begins
State of the Left - Belgium

The Flemish Socialists' fightback finally begins

Wim Vermeersch - 13 November 2015

The party’s new leader has the opportunity to reinvigorate its prospects in the forthcoming elections

The new federal government in Belgium celebrated its first anniversary on 11 October 2015. Having been in government for 26 years, the Socialists (Sp.a) have now been in opposition for just over a year. Prospects for the Sp.a have not improved considerably so far, although their new leader, John Crombez, has managed to bring energy and enthusiasm back to the party. Nethertheless, the government’s position seems to have been strengthened.

‘Kicking out the socialists’

The political landscape of Belgium is, understandably, quite complex. The May 2014 federal and regional elections reshaped it.

The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), a rightwing conservative nationalist party, emerged victorious in these elections. It recorded a historic landslide victory, winning 32.6 per cent of the votes. A coalition government of N-VA, the Flemish Christian democrats (CD&V), the Flemish liberals (Open VLD) and the francophone liberals (MR) took office in October 2014, with MR leader Charles Michel the youngest person ever to become prime minister. Both the Sp.a and the francophone socialists (PS) were relegated to the opposition benches. While PS succeeded in retaining power in the regional governments, such as in Wallonia and Brussels, Sp.a was kicked out of the Flemish government.
The new centre-right government relished the prospect of pursuing non-socialist policies. Nevertheless, it was a bit of a rocky start to the new coalition, with mounting tensions arising from the Flemish coalition partners drawing their support from the same social groups. Moreover, the Christian democrats were facing a wave of protests from civil society, triggered by the coalition’s autumn 2014 policy plans and this summer’s plans to implement a tax shift policy. As of this October the protests have subsided and the government’s position seems to have been strengthened.

A new socialist leader: John Crombez

Flemish socialists have lent their voices to these protests, but their efforts have been severely hampered by the leadership election. Due to archaic and obsolete party statutes, the election process was badly managed and lasted for almost a year. Eventually, Crombez became the new leader in June of this year. In the meantime, the party had failed to mount an effective opposition to the government’s plans. It seemed all too preoccupied with its own problems, while society was just waking up to the threat of government policies.

Crombez, a professor of economics and a former junior minister responsible for fighting tax evasion and social fraud, promised to set out plans on how to sort the internal party machinery. He pledged to offer a greater say for rank-and-file members, build a more principled party and promote a more leftwing political agenda.

The party machinery badly needed to be looked at. Members felt abandoned by the leadership and attendance at local party meetings was falling dramatically. All decisions were made by a few people at the top of the party, who confined themselves to defending policy compromises. In short, Flemish socialists faced the dilemma that many other social democratic parties in north-western Europe are confronted with: how to strike a delicate balance between behaving responsibly and using ‘strong language’ to generate enthusiasm from the party’s rank and file as well as from voters.

Understandably, Crombez now pursues a more leftwing political agenda, as his party has been relegated to the opposition benches. However, Sp.a’s agenda is also dictated by the complex Flemish political landscape. While in the UK, with its two-party system, the main parties are fighting to represent the centre ground (although Jeremy Corbyn seems to think otherwise), Flemish socialists are facing competition from the left and the right: from the Greens (in opposition) and to a lesser extent from the far-left (PVDA+, in opposition), as well as from leftwing tendencies within the liberal and Christian democratic parties (in government). In sum, leftwing votes are spread across different parties, while the conservative Flemish nationalists consolidated the rightwing vote in order to win 32.6 per cent.

Challenges ahead

Whether to strike a comprehensive pre-election deal with the Green party and draw up one list of candidates – ie to establish a ‘political cartel’ – is the biggest strategic decision Sp.a’s new chairman has to make in the coming years. The next federal election will be held in 2019 and it is as of yet unknown whether the Flemish socialists and Greens will fight the Flemish nationalists separately, or join forces and provide a credible alternative. Both Crombez and Green party leader Meyrem Almaci have refused to comment on this issue so far.

In addition, electoral prospects for Flemish socialists could be adversely affected by two things.
The first of these problems is that, by adamantly opposing the cuts to benefits and public services, Flemish socialists are forced on the defensive and not necessarily in tune with the public mood. To resolve this issue they should come up with fresh and innovative proposals to renew, not only defend, the welfare system. Issues such as a further reduction in working hours and a guaranteed basic income for everyone are now being widely discussed at party meetings; such discussions should be allowed to continue.

The second problem is that the refugee crisis, which is here to stay, could make itself felt among voters. Socialists feel distinctly uneasy about this issue. Are refugees and migrants entitled to the same benefits as citizens of the host country? And can access to certain benefits depend on the amount of time a worker has been paying contributions? In addition, the refugee crisis has been instrumentalised by rightwing politicians: they are reiterating their call for a more flexible labour market and less social rights. Trying to cope with so many newcomers thus entails a lot of discussion on their ‘rights and responsibilities’. So far, Sp.a has responded to this crisis by stating that refugees are entitled to ‘unconditional help’. It is, indeed, the decent thing to do, but Flemish socialists will also have to provide answers as to what will be done to integrate people who have settled in Flemish society. As fear seems to be mounting over that prospect, ordinary Flemish citizens should be offered a convincing explanation.  
2018 and 2019 elections

Sp.a has put its house in order. Now is the time to generate enthusiasm from voters, as the 2018 local elections are getting closer. Party headquarters have already started preparations for them, since they are considered to be a prelude to the 2019 federal and regional elections. Election fever will soon be sweeping across Belgium again.

Wim Vermeersch is editor-in-chief of ‘Samenleving en politiek’ and works for the Gerrit Kreveld Foundation

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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