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Wallonia’s tug-of-war on the left

Wallonia’s tug-of-war on the left

by host
Wallonia’s tug-of-war on the left

CHÊNÉE, Belgium — All the traces of a devastating 2021 flood have gone from this tranquil market square in Belgium’s east, near the city of Liège.

But public resentment around how authorities were slow to handle the disaster and its destruction that claimed nearly 40 lives across the region is still fresh in the minds of voters.

Jacqueline, a local browsing the market in the village of Chênée, was weighing who to vote for in Belgium’s triple election on June 9, when Belgians elect new national, regional and European Parliament members. 

“Definitely not for the PS!” she said, referring to the Francophone center-left Socialists (PS) who have ruled Liège for over 50 years. “During the floods, they were completely absent.”

That’s not good news for Wallonia’s most-prominent politician, and wannabe prime minister, Paul Magnette.

“We’re never on conquered territory. There’s a broader political offer,” said Sabine Roberty, a PS member of parliament who was handing out campaign leaflets at Chênée’s market in mid-May. | Camille Gijs/POLITICO

While most mainstream parties in Europe face far-right challengers, the pressure on the PS and Magnette in the past decade has come from the left. The far-left Workers’ Party (PTB) is projected to rival the PS in Belgium’s federal parliament, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls. In the capital, Brussels, the PTB is polling ahead of the Socialists.

The Belgian state’s power is divided between a federal government, with the three regions — Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels — handling issues like employment or mobility and the three Flemish, French-speaking and German communities handling issues such as education.

French speakers most often vote for French-speaking parties only, as traditional parties have split into Flemish and French-speaking parties decades ago to cater to their own regions.

The Socialists have been in power in Wallonia almost uninterrupted since the 1980s. Today, the party is facing an uphill battle to remain Belgium’s biggest French-speaking party.

Socialist woes

For years, the PTB had put pressure on the Socialists from the left of the spectrum. In the weeks leading up to the June 9 election, that has left the PS vulnerable to other challenges, with the liberal Reformist Movement (MR) catching up in national polling. PS and MR are now polling neck-and-neck with more than 20 percent of the French-speaking vote, and the centrist Les Engagés has surged into third place with a projected 17 percent of that vote. 

All the traces of a devastating 2021 flood have gone from the tranquil market square in Chênée, near the Belgian city of Liège. | Camille Gijs/POLITICO

“We’re never on conquered territory. There’s a broader political offer,” said Sabine Roberty, a PS member of parliament who was handing out campaign leaflets at Chênée’s market in mid-May.   

In Wallonia, the PS is fighting to maintain its position as political heavyweight. In Belgium’s northern, richer, Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, the separatist, far-right Vlaams Belang is projected to become the biggest party — but the party has been excluded from governing by other parties due to its extreme agenda.

Once the electoral dust has settled, Flemish and Francophone parties gather to form coalitions to run the country. Finding a majority for a national government is expected to take months. The country already holds the world record in that regard, after going 541 days without a government in 2010-2011 when it faced a similar divide.

For Magnette and his Socialists, a June 9 victory could propel him to the country’s top job; a loss could cause irreparable damage to his ambitions.

Moi, premier ministre

Currently the mayor of Charleroi — a city best known to air travelers as a low-cost airline hub — Magnette, the PS leader, has bigger and brighter dreams: He wants to become Belgium’s next prime minister. 

Last time around, Magnette’s PS was the first party in Wallonia and the third overall in Belgium, but Alexander De Croo overtook him in the race for Belgium’s top job. Now, the 52-year-old, suave, Cambridge-educated Magnette faces arguably an even more difficult path to the throne. 

The far-left PTB “is an unquestionable electoral competitor for the Socialist Party in the segment that tends to vote most socialist: the salaried working classes,” said Pascal Delwit, professor of political science at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. 

What makes it tricky is that the two parties covet the same voters. 

Sipping a Coca-Cola Light on the terrace of Le Sinatra local pub just next to the market, Nathalie knows she will cast her vote for a left-leaning party. But she is still undecided about which one. 

“My dad has always voted for the PS. So since I was very young, I voted for them. But nothing has ever changed” under its leadership, she said. 

Nathalie has worked for Belgian supermarket chain Delhaize for 33 years. She was one of the workers affected by social upheaval when the company franchised all of its stores. Both Magnette and the PTB’s charismatic president, Raoul Hedebouw, came to meet Delhaize’s unions to see what they “could do to help,” she said.

“Raoul,” as people in Chênée call Hedebouw, is the face of the Workers’ Party across Belgium and a native of Liège. Portraying himself as a man of the people, he loves to “boire un pot” — have a drink — in one of the numerous Liège cafés. 

In Liège, posters from the far-left Workers’ Party are everywhere. The party is projected to rival the PS in Belgium’s federal parliament. | Camille Gijs/POLITICO

Magnette, meanwhile, is more “indebted” to voters, said Delwit, the professor. “It’s clear that, at all levels, he won’t be governing alone, so he also has to run a campaign that takes that into account.”

The anti-establishment vote, rooted in disillusionment with Wallonia’s leading class, is a powerful message for Hedebouw and his PTB.

“The PS promises the left during the campaign and it ends up being the right in government,” said David Pestieau, the PTB’s political director. “We are ready to join a government, but not to throw away our principles,” he added.

Having ruled Wallonia for decades, the PS is deeply engrained in Belgium’s federal, regional and local levels of government and across its public institutions.

That history is facing a reckoning with frustrated voters. 

“There were two meters of water covering all these houses,” said Guy, a florist at the local market, of the 2021 floods. “You spot the politicians, as usual, when elections are coming,” he said. “And then there’s no one here for months.”

Hanne Cokelaere contributed reporting.

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