Belgium: Socialist Left candidate nominated for elections of party chairperson!

The Belgian Socialist Party has been dominated by a right-wing bureaucracy for some time now, but something has been brewing in the ranks lately. This has now suddenly erupted and come to the surface with the Antwerp branch nominating Erik De Bruyn, a known Marxist and promoter of the left of the Party, “SP.a Rood”. An apparently small incident has provoked an earthquake within the party.

On Saturday, 8 September a minor earthquake shook Belgian politics. Erik De Bruyn was nominated by the Antwerp Socialist Party branch - the biggest in Flanders - for the position of national chairperson of the Socialist Party (SP.a). Since then the media has been giving wide coverage about the left wing candidate and the crisis in the Socialist leadership on a daily basis.

Erik De Bruyn
Erik De Bruyn 

Erik De Bruyn was interviewed by all the major papers and was the chief guest on Terzake, the most important in-depth TV news programme viewed by almost a quarter of a million people. He spoke about the need to go back to the roots of Socialism, the domination of people's lives by the profit motive, longer working hours, the relevance of Marx today, the nationalisation of the energy sector, the need to win back workers' votes from the extreme right, etc.

People received this message as a breath of fresh air in a political debate that has been dominated for too long by the right wing. As one person wrote on an Internet discussion forum, "I like this guy from the SP.a. We urgently need some people with guts on stage. They will make society more attractive again. So people can recognise themselves in a project for which they dare to go on the barricades." 

Electoral defeat 

On June 10 the Socialists were severely beaten in the elections. The PS, the Socialist Party in the French speaking area, got 29,5 percent, their worst result in more than a century. In Flanders the defeat was even more devastating. The Flemish SP.a only garnered 16 percent, the worst result ever, even worse than the 15 percent of 1999 since they are now in an alliance with Spirit, a small Flemish nationalist party. This triggered a deep crisis, especially since the party leadership learned nothing from the defeat.

Immediately after the elections, chairman Johan Vande Lanotte resigned, but he immediately passed the throne to Caroline Gennez. As a consequence the rank and file revolted and demanded the chairperson be elected. The leadership retreated and promised elections for October 21. Traditionally such elections are just for show because the leadership has a firm control over the party apparatus. For decades we have not seen contenders, but just one candidate. In fact, for decades there has not been an organised left inside the party, until Erik De Bruyn took the initiative of launching SP.a Rood in the autumn of 2005.

The autumn of 2005 saw one of the biggest workers' mobilisations in Belgian history, with two general strikes in October and a demonstration of 100,000 workers in Brussels (read Belgium: 100,000 workers march through streets of Brussels). Their anger was aimed at the so-called Generation Pact, a government package aimed at getting rid of early retirement schemes and in general achieving a greater flexibility of the labour market. What infuriated them even more was the role played by the leadership of the Socialist Parties (SP.a and PS) as the main advocates of this Generation Pact. In the "Purple" coalition government of Liberals and Socialists, the ministers of the SP.a and PS were pushed to the front to sell this capitalist package to the labour movement. Although the Pact was eventually passed by parliament, they failed to convince their rank and file. The anger lingered on for two years and came to the surface, first in the electoral defeat and now in the nomination of Erik De Bruyn.

In October 2005, at the time of the general strikes, Erik De Bruyn took the initiative of bringing together a group of rank and file Socialists that protested together with the trade unions against the conduct of the Socialist Party leadership. Erik De Bruyn is known as a long-standing Socialist and trade union activist and as a prominent Marxist of Vonk. The left wing group was baptised "SP.a Rood" and issued a call against the party line, signed by 15 local party members and trade union leaders. This immediately attracted attention from within the labour movement and the media, especially since a former Socialist MP, Jef Sleeckx, had joined.

However, some months later Sleeckx split from the party and lost himself in an alliance with the ultra-left (that ended in an electoral fiasco and crisis, as usual). Although the rest of SP.a Rood stayed in the party, this adventure of Sleeckx had the effect of portraying them as splitters. In Flanders, with its traditional domination by the right wing, splitters are not seen well inside the Socialist Party. But gradually over time the group became more accepted by the party ranks, through some good campaigns like the municipal elections of 2006 (with several SP.a Rood candidates being elected), the party's "ideological" congress (in which some SP.a Rood amendments were passed) and the general election campaign of 2007. However, it was the crushing defeat of the SP.a that marked a qualitatively new period in which all the previously small issues came together as one.

Up until then SP.a Rood was marginalised in the mainstream media. Sometimes it was possible to break through this wall via smart campaigns like actions against the privatisation of public services (post, rubbish collection, swimming pools, etc.) or the defence of trade union rights and of refugees. But often the left-wing tendency was described in the bourgeois media as a "marginal, ultra left group inside the SP.a" - if they were mentioned at all. 

From zero to hero

Immediately after the elections, SP.a Rood launched a call in which it pointed to the Blairite line as the main cause of the defeat. In the same press release they announced that they would put forward their own candidates for party leadership. In July it was decided that Erik De Bruyn, as leading spokesperson of the tendency, would take up the challenge with Elke Heirman as running-mate, a young SP.a councillor and one of the initial 15 SP.a Rood members. Because of the crisis inside the SP.a, the media gave some attention to this challenge, but again it was described as marginal without any real possibility of becoming a real challenge or with any chance of getting nominated. After all, according to the party rules these relatively unknown candidates had to overcome the obstacle of getting the support from at least ten different branches, in at least two different provinces, counting on at least 5,000 members (the party has 55,000 members). Until then SP.a Rood had mainly been based in Antwerp (where the party leadership had a firm control, or so they thought) and in Brussels (where the Flemish SP.a is quite small and a large part of SP.a Rood sympathisers chose to alter their membership from SP.a to the French speaking PS, seen as being a bit more to the left of the SP.a).

In spite of this difficult starting position, SP.a Rood began to contact several party branches during the summer. Erik De Bruyn and Elke Heirman were invited to speak and quickly it became evident that many among the rank and file had a similar analysis of the situation. Even before the earthquake had happened in Antwerp, already more than 15 branches in the municipalities and small towns had had the courage to support the nomination of SP.a Rood. The party leadership felt something was happening, and in a bid to present itself more to the left, Dirk Van der Maelen was chosen as running mate of Caroline Gennez. Van der Maelen is the previous leader of the SP.a fraction in parliament and has a reputation of being more to the left, although he has never really had much influence in developing the line of the party, in spite of his leading position - or possibly because of his leading position. (We should remember that he was leader of the SP.a fraction in parliament when it voted for the Generation Pact...) Through this manoeuvre the leadership thought it had secured its left flank.

Then last Saturday, apparently out of the blue, the general assembly of the big Antwerp party branch nominated Erik and Elke with 59 percent, against 38 percent for the official candidates. This happened against the proposal of the local party executive and of the popular mayor of Antwerp. It was indeed quite an exceptional general assembly. The leadership had printed only 75 copies of the "declaration of intent" of both candidates. They were surprised when 193 members showed up. The reason is quite clear: for the leadership it was business as usual, but the rank and file felt that this time their vote could count. It was remarkable how all the ordinary people who spoke during the meeting, spoke in support of Erik De Bruyn, often with a lot of emotion. Erik also received support from "Old Labour" when Bob Cools, ex-mayor of Antwerp, gave a fiery speech about state ownership of the strategic sectors of the economy, François Mitterand, George Bush, "the banana republic of Belgium", the capitalist Albert Frère and the October Revolution (!). One had to see the faces of the leadership and apparatus after the vote was counted... It was indeed a very cold shower for them!

Of course the democratically taken decision of the Antwerp branch provoked some sour comments on the part of the leadership. Ex-chairman Louis Tobback criticised the Antwerp leadership for organising a general assembly. "No party branch is obliged to put forward a candidate for chairman to its members. It seems that the Antwerp leadership was convinced Gennez would get elected." In other words, if you are not sure about an election outcome, why organise an election? Truly the words of a dictator!

For his part, Patrick Janssens, the mayor of Antwerp and party leader, laid stress on the fact that although the members had voted for Erik De Bruyn, "all the SP.a people known to the electorate are 100 percent behind Gennez". To which Erik De Bruyn replied in the paper De Morgen (September 11): "It is a pity that Patrick Janssens has invented a new division inside the party: it seems the unimportant SP.a members in Antwerp have voted SP.a Rood while the important members support Caroline Gennez."

And what can we say of the reaction of Gennez herself? "Either the SP.a members vote for an open party that looks with confidence to the future and wants to be a broad Flemish Socialist party, or they vote for a communist-inspired ultra-left party." Erik replied on TV and in the papers: "It is as if Gennez wants to go back to the fifties when the Socialist leaders called everybody that did not agree with their party line ‘a dirty communist'."

Erik on the frontpage of De Morgen
Erik on the frontpage of De Morgen 

His analysis of the Antwerp vote was summed-up in De Standaard (September 10): "It was the first time in years that the rank and file has had a chance to express its opinion, and I know what the atmosphere has been over there for some time now. For a long time party members have had the feeling of being caught offside in their own party. My project is a clear Socialism that differs from the other parties. It is a protest against the unequal economic power relations in society." And in De Morgen he added (September 11): "Socialists denounce the unequal economic power relations. Marx is still relevant today. The party discourse on ‘equal opportunities' [the main ideological line of the leadership, Ed.] was not totally bad, but it is too light to carry a real Socialist ideology. Socialists cannot agree with a society dominated by one-sided economic motives such as the accumulation of profit and capital." And on the regional TV (ATV, September 10): "It is not just about money. It is also about the daily lives of people, about the daily rat-race, the fact that people have to work harder and longer, that their family life is under pressure, the increasing aggression and stress in society, and the fact that as a consequence values such as solidarity are disappearing. It is also about those issues."

The sudden appearance of such a Socialist message on the Flemish political stage has altered the situation. Probably the call for nationalisation of the energy sector made the bosses tremble as if they had seen the ghost of a dead person. But the Socialism of SP.a Rood has been greeted with joy inside the labour movement. One of the main trade union news websites has been covering the news extensively, although the socialist trade union leadership says "they do not take sides". The media now have reported that even in the town of Mechelen, home base of Caroline Gennez, a local councillor has openly declared himself for SP.a Rood. And while writing, the news keeps coming in: SP.a Bruges has also voted for SP.a Rood (68% against 20%, with 11% for another left wing candidate); SP.a Aalst (the backyard of Dirk Van der Maelen) has said that for the moment it is not supporting any candidate, which is an indirect indication of support for Erik De Bruyn; in Ostend (the town of chairman Vande Lanotte) Sp.a Rood got a respectable 31 percent, and in Sint-Niklaas a respectable 35 percent although the popular "left-wing" mayor called for support for Gennez.

Break through right wing demagogy

Media coverage in De Standaard:
Media coverage: "Who will save socialism?" 

All this is happening at a time of deep political crisis in Belgium. More than three months after the general elections, Belgium still has no government, although the right wing won a decisive victory on June 10. It was written in the stars that for the first time since the eighties a homogenous right wing government would be formed, between the Christian-Democrats and the Liberals. For the first time in two decades the Socialists will be out of government, so the bosses have the opportunity of launching an all-out attack against working and living conditions. And yet, with such an opportunity, the right-wing parties are unable to form a government coalition, essentially because of the national question. They are quarrelling among themselves because they are divided over how to implement a harsh capitalist programme. Traditionally this has always been done through the national Belgian state, but for a growing part of the Flemish bourgeoisie this is not moving fast enough and they blame the "inertia" of French-speaking Belgium and the strength of the PS there. Because the right wing is stronger in Flanders, they are hoping to be able to better implement their capitalist agenda through further division of Belgium, beginning by breaking up the Social Security system between the two regions. Splitting the Social Security system along regional lines is a first step to further dismantling welfare and pushing through privatisation.

When such a right-wing government is finally formed, it will undoubtedly start by attacking the living standards, just as we saw in the Netherlands under the devout Christian Prime Minister Balkenende. However, the trade unions can see the threatened attack on Social Security, and even the Christian trade union leadership has issued warnings, in spite of "their" party being the main winner of the elections and the leader of the future government. A right-wing government would be riddled with severe contradictions - the same contradictions that are now making a coalition so difficult. It would be quite easy for the Socialist Parties to cut across the government's plans and bring it down, if only the Socialists dared to fight on the basis of a programme centred on the contradiction between labour and capital (and not on that between Flanders and Wallonia). On the contrary, it seems the current party leadership wishes down the same road. Johan Vande Lanotte has said that, although they are now in opposition in parliament, they wish to give support to the government's plan for further reform of the state (in the current context this means a further division of Belgium and of the Social Security system). They have learned nothing. In this situation the message of SP.a Rood comes across as a fresh approach to solving the workers' problems. Many ordinary people are suffering the stresses of capitalism and are looking for a way out.

Erik De Bruyn, Elke Heirman and Rudy Kennes, convenor at the GM car factory
Erik De Bruyn, Elke Heirman and Rudy Kennes,
convenor at the GM car factory 

Whatever the outcome of the elections for party chairperson, the left will be significantly stronger than before and Erik De Bruyn will be regarded as an opinion maker and left leader. The workers see this is a different kind of politics, which genuinely cares about their conditions and lives. That explains why the Socialist trade union delegation of the GM car factory in Antwerp has invited Erik and Elke to the factory to talk with them and explain their demands. Two of the biggest anti-war organisations (Vrede and Forum voor Vredesactie) have done the same. This is only a small indication of the level of support that exists for a Socialist Party that is genuinely rooted in the movement, in the factories and in the neighbourhoods.

Such a party would easily cut across all the right wing demagogy. As Erik De Bruyn stated in De Morgen (September 11): "I am a bit annoyed because the party no longer cares about all those workers that used to vote for us, but who now vote for the extreme right Vlaams Belang. The SP.a leadership considers them as ‘lost forever'. I really would like us to develop a strategy to win them back. My ambition is to gain ground at the expense of the extreme right not just by gathering around us all the people that are against the extreme right, as was done in the electoral victory in Antwerp [when last year the SP.a for the first time in years polled more votes than the Vlaams Belang, Editor]." Indeed, with a bold programme and mobilising drive in the popular neighbourhoods and factories the Socialists would be able to win back the hearts they lost in the past.

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