From an opinion poll to the reality of change: great challenges for the PTB-PVDA

PVDAWe reproduce an appeal by Peter Mertens, chairman of the PTB-PVDA (Workers’ Party of Belgium):

According to the opinion poll of the RTBf/La Libre (public TV channel and daily newspaper) of 24 March, the PTB-PVDA would become the second political party in the South of Belgium (20,5%), almost tied with the Socialist Party PS (20,3%); it would become the third political force in Brussels; and in Flanders, it would surpass the electoral threshold, obtaining 5,5%. “An enormous boost for the field work of the 10.000 members of the genuine Left, but which confronts us also with major challenges”, reacts PTB-PVDA chairman Peter Mertens.

1. Of course, this is but an opinion poll, with an important margin of error. Recent experiences have shown that polls can have it wrong, and seriously at that. We are still one and a half year before the municipal elections, and two years before the parliamentary elections. A lot of water will still have passed under the bridge by then. And yet, this poll reflects a current which our 10.000 members observe day by day on the terrain, in popular neighborhoods as well as in the workplace. More and more people no longer believe in the single thought of this system, that invariably imposes heavy austerity measures on the common people, while leaving the big fortunes and the financial powers untouched. People are looking for an alternative, and that is what they express in the polls.

2. Behind the results of the opinion poll we can observe some trends. A first trend is the growing rejection of government in the South of the country. Neither the federal government nor the Walloon regional government would maintain its majority. Today, the federal government wouldn’t retain but 68 seats out of 150. The government party MR (liberal) would represent no more than one fifth of voters in Wallonia, and less than that in Brussels. The Walloon government of PS (social-democrat) and cdH (Christian-democrat) wouldn’t get more than 30% of the vote.

3. A second trend is that of a Socialist Party overwhelmed by problems of its own making, seemingly organizing its own implosion. It has been more than thirty years that the PS has been in power. It got contaminated by social-liberalism, and it organized a network of self-enrichment, recently exposed by the Publifin affair (a Walloon inter-municipal company hit by political-financial scandals). Indeed, Mr. Magnette (Walloon minister-president, PS) now promises a major clean-up, but similar promises have been made before, at the time of the Agusta scandal in 1995 and of the Charleroi corruption affairs between 2005 and 2007. Much more is needed than a simple cleaning exercise. All the more since nowadays, nothing can be examined outside of the European framework. Last week in the Netherlands elections, social-democrats got severely punished for their participation in the rightist liberal Rutte government, and we are assisting to a similar phenomenon in France. Throughout Europe, the gap between the traditional political elites and the large majority of the people continues to widen.

4. A third trend is the growing support for the PTB-PVDA (Workers’ Party of Belgium). This is a support for the concrete alternatives the PTB is promoting: a millionaires tax, the 30-hour working week, free health care at the primary level. But it is also a support for another type of politics, one that doesn’t involve in self-enrichment but operates on the basis of very clear principles. With elected officials who live with an average worker’s salary, with active branches in popular neighborhoods, involving people in social action, with the people’s clinics of Medicine for the People, with a parliamentary group that doesn’t work for its own benefit but to make the voice of the voiceless heard, and with an organization that pleads for the unity of the country not only in words, but puts this also into practice, with strong national and bilingual structures.

5. In the latest opinion poll, the PTB would become the second political force in Wallonia and the third in Brussels, thus confronting us with major challenges. At our Solidarity Congress in 2015 we stressed: “In a relatively short time, we have continued building the party rapidly, which was necessary. However, it would be wrong to rest on our laurels, for social challenges remain huge. The more we grow, the more complex tasks become. We are also facing, in a way, difficulties linked to this growth. This is not abnormal, but we do have to be aware of it.”

Why are we so severe with ourselves? Because we are a party of the grassroots, and we want to keep it that way. A party with solid branches on the ground, capable of enthusing people, but also of conscienticizing, organizing and mobilizing them. The PTB must not become a mere electoral phenomenon. We want to change things with the people, by building pressure from the bottom up.

6. Our position is based on a global assessment of a world in rapid evolution. “Temporary jobs have replaced permanent ones, with precariousness instead of security, dividends instead of investments, maximum profit instead of a sustainable environmental policy, war instead of peace, and a small privileged oligarchy instead of democratic rights for the majority. It is really a topsy-turvy world”, we observed at our Solidarity Congress. “With incredible arrogance, the establishment takes advantage of this crisis to strengthen its power further.”

We shouldn’t foster any illusions. Turbulent periods are ahead of us: just think of the near-total power of transnational corporations and financial actors, further enhanced with mergers and capital accumulation; of new financial bubbles; of the destabilization of the Middle East; of the politics of war; of the election of Trump; of the wave of refugees; and of the rise of racism as a means to divide people, mounting the ones against the others.

7. The PTB aims for a break with current policies, and that is precisely the reason why so many people invest us with their confidence. That is also precisely why we want to be crystal-clear: we won’t be able to realize such a break without the active involvement of tens of thousands of people. Because the margins for alternative policies are becoming ever smaller. Just look at what has happened in France, with Hollande.

That is also what the painful experience of Syriza has shown us, in Greece. The European establishment forced them to obey, and they abandoned the mobilization and the organization of the people of the left, while letting their cadre be absorbed in the countless positions in the State apparatus. As a result, today it is Syriza itself that is implementing the fourth memorandum, an austerity plan of the Troika that is harsher yet than its predecessor.

8. You must be blind or stupid not to draw lessons from the dismal experience of Syriza. Currently, in the framework of the European austerity dictates, no alternative policies whatsoever are possible. This Union imposes a strict fiscal straitjacket, organizes the liberalization of public services and wage competition between member States – and by doing so, also social dumping. At the same time, it lets billions upon billions of euro flow to the big banks and the shareholders of big companies, like liquid soap waiting to create new financial bubbles. That is what I described in my new book “Graailand” (“Country of raptors”, which will be published in French by September), of which more than 11.000 copies have already been sold in the North of the country.

We cannot be expected to take part in a government that plans to postpone the pension age, to continue the hunt on jobless, or to pursue the liberalization of public services. We want to fundamentally change the European treaties, which will only be possible with a government that is determined to combat the current principles of competition and inequality, and with a government that demands and obtains the necessary popular support for it. Today, we are still quite far removed from such a situation.

9. With the PTB accorded second position in Wallonia, we also know that we will be subject to intensified attacks in an effort to deter the common people with the “red scare”. We already heard Mr. Ducarme (member of parliament for the liberal MR) appeal for a “cordon sanitaire” around the PTB (political isolation and exclusion); Mr. De Wever (chairman of the rightist-nationalist N-VA and mayor of Antwerp) treat us as “the debris of the 20th century”; and, this week, the Prime Minister accuse us of being “populist”.

Throwing invectives is a show of weakness by politicians who have lost the habit of seriously debating the fundamental choices facing today’s society, what is what the forces of the genuine Left are finally up to.

10. In Europe, as in Belgium, the cultural hegemony is still very much to the Right. That translates the fact that the dominant thinking is that of the dominant class. At our Solidarity Congress in 2015, we established our strategy of wanting to build a counter-hegemony, from the bottom up: “Creating a new culture of liberation and a progressive world view based on solidarity is a struggle in itself.” That is why we launch an appeal to our potential voters and to our sympathizers. Use your talents yourselves, in an active manner, to build this new culture together. Organize yourselves, in trade-unions, in movements of youth and students, for the promotion of women’s rights, the defense of the environment, anti-racism, peace, in neighborhoods committees, theater groups, music and sports clubs. This means so much more than just giving your vote to a party. It is about transforming this vote in a collective force, organizationally and culturally. We are impatient, because injustice is hitting hard against all those who have a hard time to make both ends meet, and because change is urgent. But at the same time we are patient, because if we really want this change, we know that we will have to build it step by step, stone upon stone.

11. The result of this opinion poll will also be used by separatist forces trying to divide our country even more.

But a divided country would inevitably mean a major weakening of the workers’ and progressive movement and of our social security system. As we already said at our Solidarity Congress: “Yes, we live in a country with two democracies. They are not the democracies in the North and the South of the country; they are one democracy for the haves, and another for the  have-nots.” It is an illusion to think that a “leftist Wallonia”, smaller still than Belgium, could on its own get out of this situation. If we aim at seriously uprooting matters in the whole of  Europe, we should be able to succeed in uniting our common fights in the North and in the South of the country.

12. Of course, conditions are not the same in the North of the country. There you have six parties aside from the PTB-PVDA, with the N-VA and the Vlaams Belang (extreme rightist) who both have an anti-establishment and nationalist profile, attracting part of the working people. This renders the situation more complex and difficult than in the South and the center of the country. Currently, the N-VA has succeeded to temporarily hide its own affairs of greed. They attempt to win votes first of all with a very harsh discourse against refugees, and in part by copying the program of the Vlaams Belang. Similar ideas also exist in the South of the country, when we see how the MR is copying the policies of Mr. Francken (N-VA, State Secretary for Asylum and Migration). It would not make sense not to go and fight the N-VA on its own terrain, in Flanders.

In a politically much more difficult context, the PTB-PVDA is also growing in the North of the country: with 10 %, the PTB-PVDA is the fourth party in Antwerp, which is De Wever city. According to the recent opinion poll, the genuine Left would obtain, for the first time, three Flemish representatives in the federal Parliament. With 5.5 % in Flanders, we would actually obtain the score that we had in 2014 in Wallonia. That is just three years ago, and everybody knows how fast things can change. That is also why our national spokesperson, Raoul Hedebouw, has become more visible in Flanders, in order to reinforce the voice of the genuine Left also in the North of the country.

13. Raoul Hedebouw continues to do so in the South of the country as well, with growing success. We are a collective party, of which Raoul Hedebouw is the national spokesperson, a task he executes with enormous talent. But we have various other talents – like Germain Mugemangango, Sofie Merckx, Marco Van Hees and David Pestieau, to name but a few – that we want to make known in the period to come. We work at diversifying our spokespersons.

14. At our Solidarity Congress, the delegates decided to work at a strategy for change. Our party is growing fast, but that doesn’t mean that we are willing to do whatever it takes to obtain superficial success.

We want all and any of our members to be conscious actors of change, and never mere consumers of politics. We don’t need careerists nor opportunists, we want dedicated and altruistic activists. We will participate in the municipal elections in a limited number of municipalities, wherever we have been able to build strong and solid party branches. In the coming months, we will also put much energy in the training of new local cadres, and in the setting up of new party branches, so as to be capable of taking up the challenges we are faced with.

15. The pioneers of the working class in the 19th and 20th centuries worked very hard to politically organize a well-structured social movement, promoting workers rights and achieving victories by creating a counter-power in factories and towns all over the country. Now, in the early 21st century, the PTB-PVDA is working hard to build a solid and well-organized party,  promote a society of solidarity, break with neoliberalism, the law of profit and capitalism, and respond to the urgent social and ecological challenges.

But we need many, many more people in order to advance on this road. We call on everybody who can identify with the ideas and actions of a genuine Leftist party to join our ranks.

Source: PTB-PVDA via Solidnet / RedGlobe

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