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State of the Left Belgium

Bad luck for the leftwing opposition

Wim Vermeersch - 20 October 2016

Belgian media are relishing the thought of opposition coming from inside the government, making it very hard for the ‘real’ opposition to make its voice heard

Liberals, Flemish nationalists and Christian Democrats celebrated the second anniversary of the  Charles Michel government last week. The party was fortunate - the 2017 budget negotiations almost caused this centre-right government to fall, not to mention the fact that the coalition partners have been arguing endlessly since 2014. Flemish Christian Democrats were actively undermining their own government, striving for a more social policy. Paradoxically, it represents a serious setback for the leftwing opposition (the Socialists and Greens).

Christian democrats: in power, but under pressure

The current  government is a centre-right coalition consisting of Flemish Christian Democrats, Flemish Nationalists, Flemish Liberals and Walloon Liberals. This combination does not command a majority in Wallonia, but the prime minister, Charles Michel, is a Walloon Liberal. It also means that francophone socialists do not form part of the federal government for the first time in 20 years. The Flemish Socialists are watching from the opposition benches as well. It seemed a ‘familiar’ setting at its start in 2014: a centre-right government versus a leftwing opposition.

Alas! Never underestimate the complex reality of Belgian politics. Flemish Christian Democrats, who had been the leading force in Belgian politics for decades, are no longer the main player. In recent years, many of their rightwing voters have shifted to the Flemish Nationalist party. And today, support from their leftwing voters, identifying with the Christian Labour Movement, seems to be shifting as well.

Hence, Flemish Christian Democrats are under intense pressure to reject the anti-social policies from their own government. They have failed to do so until now. The Michel government makes fresh cuts to public spending and squeezes middle-class incomes, while taxes for rich people don’t go up. Consequently, the Christian Labour Movement is hugely dissatisfied with the performance of their Christian Democratic ministers.

The 2017 budget negotiations in mid-October were the latest episode in a series of crises. The Flemish Christian Democrats insisted on introducing a tax on the selling of shares, thereby deliberately provoking a clash with their rightwing coalition partners. Eventually, an agreement à la belge was concluded. However, it has now become clear that this government’s strength is ebbing away. Elections are scheduled for 2018 and 2019, so making compromises will become even more difficult in the coming years.

Leftwing opposition finds it difficult to make its voice heard

It is, of course, bad luck for the leftwing opposition (ie the Socialists and Greens) that the discussion between leftwing and rightwing policies is actually taking place within the Michel government. The media are relishing the thought of opposition coming from inside the government, making it very hard for the ‘real’ opposition to make its voice heard. When the latter is sending the same message as one of the coalition partners, the media simply isn’t interested.

The question is which opposition parties stand to benefit from this situation both in Wallonia and Flanders.

Communists make gains in Wallonia

The Communists (PTB) seem poised to reap the electoral rewards in Wallonia. Although they have always made their presence felt in some bastions of industry, the opinion polls now show that they are on the verge of making a great leap forward at the expense of the Socialists, traditionally the main party in Wallonia.

Certainly, it does not help that the French-speaking socialists are in government in Wallonia and Brussels. They cannot always run an effective opposition, as people tend to disregard the difference between the regional and the federal government. Moreover, socialist chairman Elio Di Rupo, the previous prime minister, has vowed to transform his party, but the process does not run smoothly and a major leadership change has not come about.

Greens make gains in Flanders

The situation in Flanders is completely different. The leftwing parties are in the opposition on all levels. Socialists and gGreens have criticised government policies along the same lines, but the latter seem poised to make significant gains in the elections. Public perception of the Green party is somewhat different: they are seen as less traditional, not siding with the establishment and not linked to a ‘pillar’ (a solid network of organisations).

Unlike their Walloon Socialist colleagues, Flemish Socialists made great efforts to reinvigorate the party. John Crombez was elected as party leader and he provided the main impetus for change. For the time being, the party is not reaping the rewards in the polls, possibly because it voiced its fierce opposition all too recently and because people still associate the party with old-school politics.

The 2018 local elections are extremely important for the Flemish Socialists. Cities such as Ghent, Bruges, Louvain and others now have Socialist mayors. Their re-election would give the party a huge boost in the runup to the 2019 regional and federal elections. Prospects would even be better if they could topple the Flemish Nationalist mayor of Antwerp.

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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