European elections in Belgium: two countries in one
On May 26 2019 Belgium had European, federal and regional elections. What opinion polls did not show three months ago started to emerge two to three weeks before the elections: a surge of the far right in Flanders. The radical left also grew considerably and will, as expected, have one French speaking member in the European Parliament. In Flanders it did pass the electoral threshold of 5% for federal and regional elections. The tidal wave of the greens only materialised in the French speaking part of the country. In sum, governing parties all lost, the far right won in the North and the left won in the South, though social democrats obtained their worst result ever. The European vote was mostly influenced by national concerns. As the vote is obligatory, participation rate was 88,47%, with 6,32% of invalid and abstention votes.
A polarised country in a polarised Europe
The results of the far right in Flanders are worrying, but should not surprise too much. In 2003 and 2007 already Vlaams Belang obtained 18 and 19% of the votes respectively. It was the emergence of a nationalist, ‘civilised’ (apparently non-racist) right-wing party that shifted right-wing votes over to NV-A. This party now having been in government and having abandoned its ‘communitarian’ (nationalist) agenda, Vlaams Belang had an easy target. While NV-A had a very hard anti-migration policy and left the government over the so-called ‘Marrakesh agreement’ of the UN, the appearance along Flemish highways and near the coast of ‘trans-migrants’ searching for an exit to the United Kingdom is probably the main explanation for the success of the far right.
The South of the country has no major right-wing party anymore, only some micro-groups without any significance. The ‘Front national’ which obtained 5,6% of the votes in 2003 and 2007 has totally disappeared. It would be wrong to say there are no anti-migration feelings in the French-speaking part of the country, while economic and social problems are also far worse in the South, but the fear of ‘losing’ its wealth is less outspoken. It is precisely because of its wealth that new migration is more important in the North. The left-wing parties, radical left, social-democrats and greens, do focus more on solidarity. It should also be noted that PTB had a promising programme for refugees, but was particularly silent on migration.
The social-democrats remain the most important party in the South, though, as in the North, they lose around 3% of the votes. Nationally, they remain the largest political family of the country.
The Greens do progress, as expected, though less than what opinion polls predicted. Ecolo, in the South, wins close to 8%, while the Flemish Greens do not gain more than 2%. Ecolo becomes the largest party in Brussels.
The radical left, PTB, is the major winner of the elections in the South. The success of the far left in Wallonia can be explained by the excellent work of its two deputies these past five years. Repeatedly pointing to the really existing social problems, the inequality and the negative consequences of neoliberal policies, disappointed voters of social democrats and governing parties shifted to the far left. Interestingly, what PTB and Ecolo win, is far more than what the social-democrats lost, so there clearly is a shift to the left in Wallonia. PTB will have a total of 42 seats in the different parliaments voted for on May 26th.
At the national level, regional governments may not be too difficult to m ake, though the federal government will be much more difficult, with a (far) right close to 45% in the North and a (far) left close to 40% in the South, to which Ecolo has to be added. Two different countries in one.
What remains to be explained is the wave of young people voting for the far-right in Flanders. The presence of some charismatic young candidates is doubtlessly part of the explanation, as may also be the major focus on social media in the campaign of the far right. The use of a very straightforward and uncompromising language, might be another explanatory factor. In spite of huge differences in the content of the message, this maybe an element shared with the attraction of the far left in Wallonia.
Arguments for the left
One day after the elections it is too early to give a full and detailed analysis of all the results, though some topics have to be mentioned.
First of all the differences between votes for national parliaments and for the European parliament.
Flemish liberals have more than 3% more at the European level than at the national level. The easiest explanation here is the presence of Guy Verhofstadt in Europe, known for his role in the Brexit dossier and regularly present in the media.
Flemish nationalists have 4% more on the national level, which probably also has to be explained by the protagonist role of Bart De Wever, very popular leader of the party, currently mayor of Antwerp and candidate prime minister in Flanders. At the European level, these votes went to the far right.
Even more important are the 2% more at the European level for the Greens in Flanders and 5% more for Ecolo in the South. This European progress may explain why at the national level the growth of green parties was less important than expected: while weekly demo’s of young people did shift the focus of the campaign towards the climate, governing and right-wing parties did point to the danger of a ‘tax tsunami’. This result might mean that yes, people are aware of the importance of ecology, but do want to avoid the costs of it.
For other parties, the differences are minor.
Secondly, the argument for the shift to the ‘extremes’ that was mentioned most yesterday, is the anger of the public, faced with a deteriorating social situation, rising poverty and inequality, unsolved migration problems, the threats of longer working lives and rising taxes. It is the inability and even inertia of the government, that explains the rejection of traditional parties.
The third point of interest is the whole point of taxes. The government implemented a tax shift, mainly in favour of the well-off. Right-wing parties did focus a lot on the high taxes weighing on the ‘working population’, including in this the contributions for social security. Middle classes are said to be disadvantaged, compared to efforts done for the poor and for migrants and refugees. While statistics do not give any clear evidence on the truth of these assumptions, the fear of having to give in on wealth and welfare can explain part of the shift to the right.
Fourthly, and linked to the previous point is migration. While it seemed to have disappeared from the electoral agenda at the beginning of the campaign, it did remain very present. The impression that young people had succeeded in putting the focus exclusively on ecology, was clearly wrong. Daily media news on so-called ‘trans-migrants’, inevitably homeless, desperate and occupying public spaces, such as parking lots and a train station in Brussels, kept the population awake and fearful of ‘an invasion’.
Finally, as was repeatedly pointed at by the radical left, the social agenda played its role. Poverty and inequality in one of the richest countries of the world are unacceptable. More and more people, though living above the poverty line, have serious problems to make ends meet. Housing problems, lack of investment in education, cuts in social security, the threats on pensions, all these points have been very well covered by PTB/PVDA which certainly is a reason for its success. This is clearly a lesson for the future, since current austerity policies do hinder the development of well-funded social and environmental policies. Unfortunately, PTB/PVDA will not participate in power at the national level, but if it succeeds in a continued focus on all social and ecological deficiencies, its opposition role can be very fruitful.
For the Belgian left, that is the far left, social democrats and greens, changes at the European level are small. One social-democrat lost in the South is compensated by one more Ecolo. The radical left will have for the very first time a representative in Strassburg. Marc Botenga is a very intelligent and capable member of PTB and already worked for the GUE/NGL group in the past.
The success of the party, in North and South of the country, is due to five years of hard and good campaigning, pointing to all really existing problems that matter for people on the ground. If the party succeeds in translating its experience in Europe in concrete oppositional proposals, as mentioned in their programme, it will be able to give a serious contribution not only to the radical left group in the European Parliament, but most of all to the national party, allowing it to broaden its audience in the North of the country. Once more, it has been demonstrated that a radical social agenda can make the difference in elections.
As the far right also has a well developed social agenda, focusing on ‘traditional values’, it will be important to remain focused on social transformation and emancipation, adding the ecological dimension, in a positive and constructive way for all people in Europe and Belgium.