21st IMCWP, Izmir, 18-20 Oc tober 2019
"100th Anniversary of the founding of the Communist International – The fight for peace and socialism continues!”
Winning elections, advancing the struggle
Contribution of the Workers' Party of Belgium (PTB-PVDA)
A. The PTB-PVDA's election results: a major breakthrough
26 May 26 2019 was an important breakthrough for our party, the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB-PDVA). We won big across the regional, federal and European elections, and firmly established ourselves as a serious political alternative firmly to the left of both the social-democratic and green parties across the country. The number of votes for the PTB-PVDA more than doubled since the 2014 elections to more than 580,000 votes, representing 8.6% of the votes nationwide. In Brussels, we scored 13.5%, and in the French-speaking part of the country, we obtained 14.5% for the European elections. In several important cities there, we got around or over 20% of the votes. Note that the communist left had not obtained such a high score in Belgium since 1946, when, just after the war, the Communist Party won 12.7% of the votes.
Taken together, we increased the number of our elected representatives to the regional, federal and European parliaments from a mere 8 to 38 (who, taken together, occupy 43 seats in the different parliaments). The PTB-PVDA counts a group of 12 members in the federal parliament (up from 2), and obtained its very first member in the European Parliament.
All traditional parties, all parties that were in government before – be they of the social-democratic, christian-democratic or neoliberal variety – suffered a major defeat at the polls, Belgium being no exception to this Europe-wide trend. But those parties prefer to deny the important signal the people gave on election day: a signal against the political elite, against the establishment, against austerity. The composition of the various new governments formed since election day in Belgium may differ, negotiations may have dragged on for months, but in the end the parties in power all agree on continuing and even intensifying neoliberal austerity policies, and on remaining squarely within the EU-imposed framework of treaties and directives in favor of big capital.
In Flanders (the Dutch-speaking North of Belgium), our party faced the formidable challenge of moving against the tide of the extreme right, in its openly fascist form, with the Vlaams Belang party (Flemish Interest), and the rightist Flemish nationalist party N-VA (New Flemish Alliance), the largest party in Flanders (and in Belgium). In these difficult conditions – comparable to the upsurge of the extreme right elsewhere in Europa – we succeeded to double our score and win 5.6% of the votes, sending our first four members to the Flemish parliament.
We thus spoiled the cultural and political hegemony of the conservative nationalist political forces and the electoral success of the fascist party, which obtained a hefty 18.5%. The latter has been allowed to dominate the agenda since election day, through a process of conscious normalization of the fascist party. The rightist Flemish nationalist party N-VA held coalition talks with them as if it were just any other party, and it now gets a normal and even polite treatment in the national media. Meanwhile, all traditional parties have moved to the right, in their discourse as well as in their proposals. With yet another danger on the horizon: that of further poking up narrow nationalism and regionalism, with the risk of splitting up Belgium, as a confederal state – at the expense of the unity of the working class and the people.
In Wallonia (the French-speaking South of the country), conditions were much more favorable for our party. There is no extreme rightist party to speak of – quite exceptional in Europe – and the social-democratic party there had been worn out by decades of governing and had been damaged by a series of corruption scnadals. So our party was able to capture a large part of the anti-establishment vote, of the protest vote (in a country where voting is compulsory). In view of forming a regional government, the Socialist Party, having remained the largest party, felt compelled to invite us at the negotiating table. But after a few brief rounds of exploratory talks, it was all too clear that they didn’t want to break with their neoliberal austerity policies nor dared to turn their back to the EU treaties. What they wanted, was to drag us into the system as a junior partner, while silencing any leftist opposition to its government. A trap which, of course, we refused to fall into.
B. The PTB-PVDA's key to success
There are three pillars to our success in the election campaign, and we are sure that they will serve us well beyond election periods.
Crucial in the emergence of our party as a credible alternative has been the party renewal since 2008. Our 2008 Congress stressed firmness on basic Marxist principles, but also laid out the necessity of flexible tactics, including in communication and in organizing work, while striving to really become a party of the entire working people. We took this orientation on the basis of the analysis that in Europe and worldwide, as a whole, the working class and the people, the forces of the left, the forces for socialism still find themselves on the defensive – confronted as they are with powerful forces of the right, of reaction, of big monopoly capital, of imperialism. And that it will take time to build a counter-power from the bottom up, the force of the working class, the power of the people, to stand up against the powers that be. In the unfavorable objective conditions of the time and the place we’re living in, we’ll need time to gradually and systematically strengthen the subjective factors and substantially strengthen and broaden our party.
The first pillar we built our election campaign on, was the clever use and combination of politics and tactics. On the basis of broad opinion polls among our target groups, we put first of all the people's social problems in the spotlight and on the agenda: pensions - both the retirement age and the amount of the minimum pension, unaffordable electricity bills, high prices for medicines and health care, the need for tax justice and for transport that is both socially and ecologically fair. We highlighted the growing gap between rich and poor and the sharp increase in child poverty. We denounced the increase in bills for common people, while multinationals continue to evade taxes in their billions. And we translated these issues in easily usable leaflets, one-liners, pictures and video clips for our campaigners in the field.
We also drew the debate onto issues that made the other parties uneasy. Whereas the far right tries to scapegoat migration and divide the working class, we are the ones talking about social topics that can unite the people against their exploiters and oppressors. With demands that may seem radical at first, but are considered the most “normal” common sense to common people. And unlike the social-democrats, our slogans don’t expire on election day, but we intensify the fight for their realization starting the day after the elections, and with the help of our comrades in parliament.
Take pensions – the average in Belgium is €1200 a month and just €900 for women, whereas a slot in a retirement home can easily cost you €1600 a month. We have just developed and launched, barely three months after our election victory, a new mass campaign, for pensions at €1500 minimum net a month for everyone.
The second pillar was our presence on the ground, with a strong and intense grassroots campaign, involving thousands of volunteers. Our party has different levels of membership. The broader layers of members may not be conscious and schooled Marxists, but they get their political education first of all through actions and campaigns. In 2014, our party had 7,600 members; today, we have more than 18,000. This wide pool of members has allowed us to develop new local sections in many municipalities, but also to have a larger presence in the factories, in working-class districts, among trade-unionists,... Which, at its turn, allows us to reach out to broader circles of people to listen to, to discuss with, to convince, to involve.
The third pillar was communication, and particularly the use of social media. In the last weeks of the election campaign, we reached 500,000 people every day on social media. The video clips of our spokesperson Raoul Hedebouw's speeches in Parliament were particularly successful. Short video clips were broadcast to explain our positions and proposals and sometimes compare them with those of other parties. On their smartphone, these videos became available to our campaigners while doing door-to-door canvassing of votes. And by moderating conversations on the party's Facebook, we were able to attract hundreds of new party members.
C. Advancing the struggle
We have made significant advances with the combination of staying true to our Marxist fundamentals, taking on a clearly anti-establishment profile and advancing concrete alternatives that cater to the working people's social needs. It is this triple thrust, the mix of these three orientations, that has allowed us to win the masses in numbers we never achieved before, and to take on the fight both with the traditional parties and with the extreme right.
The populist and fascist right is becoming more and more menacing. In the United States with Trump, in Brazil with Bolsonaro, but also in Europe with Le Pen, Salvini and others. In Flanders, the victory of the fascist party Vlaams Belang is partly explained by a protest vote of the working class, turning against the self-serving politicians and the harsh austerity policies of the ruling elite. Thus, our first task is to help redirect the people's justified anger to those who are really responsible for their dire social conditions. There is no point in castigating the voters of Vlaams Belang, let alone in marginalizing them. We must of course fight racism with an unequivocal anti-racist stance, but to take away the breeding ground of fascism, we need to take on a clear anti-establishment discourse and put forward a strong social agenda. We tell those who intend to vote for the extreme right that we share their distrust and disgust for politicians. As party of the working class, our elected representatives vow to continue living on an average worker's salary, as they refuse to pocket the – often exorbitant – salary that goes with the office. This is, as we know, a quality of elected civil servants that Karl Marx also applauded in his judgment of the Paris Commune.
While welcoming the “working class loudspeakers” we now have in parliament, we do not buy into the narrow vision of politics according to which everything depends on what happens inside parliament. We do not want to make empty promises to the people. In an election campaign, we do not just tell people to vote for us, but also to become activists, to join us. And after an election victory, we do not tell people to wait for PTB MPs or ministers to act on their behalf, but to get organized in order to obtain a more favorable balance of power in the streets, in the workplaces, in the neighbourhoods. For throughout history, even the most basic democratic demands were won by class struggle - and that applies even more to social rights and social justice. We do see electoral and parliamentary work as important components of our party’s work, but we are conscious of the fact that they are stepping stones in a much broader and vaster strategy of change.
A strategy of change that inevitably has a European and even world-wide dimension. The development of Europe-wide or at least multi-national workers’ and people’s struggles and campaigns is of crucial importance, not just because our adversaries are organized at a European and world level, but also because a number of challenges can simply not be dealt with at the national level. Think of war and peace, think of the climate emergency, think of the rising fascism. We are facing these major challenges us just as (and partly because) the capitalist world economy appears to be on the brink of yet another recession, of which of course the workers and the people will be made to bear the brunt.
The PTB is open to engage other communist and workers parties and organizations in debate on the road forward, in exchange of concrete experiences, in actual cooperation. Because it is imperative to become, together, a stronger locomotive in the global fight for social progress, democratic rights, climate justice, peace and socialism.