The inexorable rise of the Belgian Workers’ Party

Rede von PTB-Präsident Raoul Hedebouw am 1. Mai 2024 in Brüssel, Belgien.

First published at Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

European Parliament elections in Belgium are once again taking place in the shadow of national parliamentary and regional elections. One could, therefore, expect similar results in both sets of polls.

In 2019, the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB/PVDA) first succeeded in winning one of Belgium’s then 21 parliamentary mandates (today 22). With 14.6 percent of the vote in the country’s French-speaking region, Wallonia, Marc Botenga became the first radical leftist from Belgium to make it into the European Parliament. The 5 percent attained in the larger Flemish-speaking region, however, was not enough to win a seat.

According to polls, the amount of votes going to the Social Democratic, Christian Democratic, and Liberal parties — nowadays divided according to language — will only continue to sink further after falling below 50 percent for the first time in 2019. Losses will also be felt by the Green Party, which fared well in 2019, while the far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest, or VB) and the far-left PTB are expected to make gains.

Given that the VB together with the right-wing nationalists of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) were almost able to secure an absolute majority in Flanders, forming a government at the federal level may prove to be even more difficult than before. As it is, the current government — made up of seven different parties and successfully formed a whopping 494 days after the 2019 elections — has no majority in Flanders.

The PTB’s political prospects

The PTB, however, has no cause for concern at the moment. All polls indicate that they will win three mandates in the next EU Parliament. In the national elections, they are polling at 15–20 percent in Wallonia, 20 percent in Brussels, and in Flanders they exceeded 10 percent in the summer of 2023.

Nevertheless, in polls in Wallonia and Brussels the PTB has been stagnant since 2020, and have only made modest gains in Flanders. Membership growth has also slowed down, with 23,000 members in 2020 and only 25,000 in 2024. This most likely has to do with the fact that in recent years COVID-19, the war in Ukraine and migration issues have taken centre stage, dividing the social and political landscape. As a result, the party’s campaigns on social issues have struggled to capture public attention.

Internationally, the PTB is also unique in many respects. The formerly Maoist party has, since its change of course at the turn of the millennium, maintained relations — now as a Marxist party — with a wide spectrum of other left-wing parties. Although it is not a member of the Party of the European Left, the PTB participates in their electoral campaign, and its MEP Marc Botenga belongs to the European Parliament’s Left group.

The PTB’s positions on EU policy are certainly shaped by the nationalist dispute at home. It is the only Belgian party united across language lines, and actively campaigns against the division of the country by Flemish nationalists. This flies in the face of excessive federalism and the so-called language dispute, which have long been weakening the workers’ movement in Belgium, distracting the people from capitalist plans to privatize and break up social security and welfare systems.

The PTB has a similar view of independence movements, such as the Catalonian, and the plans of some radical left-wing parties to have their respective nations leave the EU or abandon the euro. They do not see the strengthening of the nation-state as a viable option for resisting the policies of large-scale capitalism. In their view, this would only make it more difficult to fight against its power. Given that companies operate on the European level, it would seem that left-wing parties would also have to do so, and therefore network as much as possible. Nevertheless, the PTB rejects the plans of other left-wing parties to make the EU more socially oriented and democratic, because they simply do not consider the EU to be reformable.

In 2018, Marc Botenga criticized both approaches as too parliamentary and not anti-capitalist enough: “On the one hand, both focus more on the government than on power and underestimate the significance of countervailing power and extra-parliamentary action. On the other hand, both lack ambition, and the only prospect they offer is capitalism managed in a better way.”

Last year, he added that he considered “the [EU] treaties are incompatible with most left-wing policy… At the same time, we’ve seen that whenever the pressure is high enough and the balance of forces shifts, these rules are pushed aside very quickly.” He noted the example of the financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, which made it possible to override certain EU treaties.

In the event of a change in government, the PTB does not see the solution in the abandonment of the EU or the euro, but rather in non-adherence to the EU treaties, which stand in the way of left-wing politics. They would instead seek to establish EU-wide solidarity with the country in question.

MPs on a workers’ wage

The PTB’s improved electoral prospects can also be traced back to their success in the 2019 election, when their number of MPs soared from eight to 37. This meant that public contributions to the party grew from 2.3 million euro in 2018 to 6.2 million in 2022, making the PTB the third-wealthiest party in the country, despite ranking ninth among all parties. This is due to the contributions paid by elected representatives, high membership fees, and many party donations, which in Belgium cannot exceed 500 euro per/year, enabling the party to quadruple its expenditure on staff and public relations.

It is of great financial advantage to the PTB that not only their full-time staff but also their elected representatives are content with the salary of a skilled worker, or the equivalent of their previous income. According to the party’s political reasoning behind this approach, anyone who runs for office under the PTB should not be able to get rich off their position or enjoy a significantly higher standard of living than the average citizen. Chairman Raoul Hedebouw describes it as follows: “If you don’t live the way you think, then you start to think the way you live.”

This is also the reason why the party introduced a policy whereby workers keep only a 20-percent cut of their daily parliamentary allowances. The remainder, as well as all expense allowances for municipal representatives, are transferred to the party’s coffers.

Popular politics without populism

There are many reasons for the PTB’s success. It focuses on popular, mostly socio-economic demands that concern not only marginalized groups, but also most of society. These include free healthcare, an increase in the minimum pension, inflation adjustments, and the introduction of a tax on millionaires. Through months of campaigning with petitions, demonstrations, book releases, conferences, and so on, the PTB has not only advocated for these goals, but also aims to achieve at least some of them. Groups on the municipal level support street campaigns through parliamentary initiatives, but play no independent role themselves.

The PTB attacks the privileges of parties and politicians, and through its MPs’ renunciation of the bulk of their daily allowances and the financing of social projects such as the “Medicine for the People” clinics, the PTB can leverage the public’s loss of trust in their representatives to their advantage. However, their populism does not go so far as to embrace reactionary demands, as the Danish Social Democrats and the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW) do on issues of migration. Instead, the PTB sticks closer to the methods of the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ), which almost completely avoided controversial topics such as migration and crime in their campaigns in Styria, Salzburg, and Tyrol.

In the lead-up to this year’s elections, the PTB asked over 100,000 people to identify areas in which they expected the most from politicians. Their answers will form the focus of the electoral campaign — as long as they do not conflict with their own fundamental political convictions. Regarding contentious topics such as migration or the war in Ukraine, the PTB comments only reluctantly, and refrains from campaigning or organizing parliamentary initiatives on these subjects. The party, however, rejects the tightening of EU asylum regulations, and calls for citizenship to be automatically granted to migrants after five years of residency in Belgium.

In order to effectively tackle the climate crisis, the PTB advocates for rigorous measures, especially against the biggest CO2 producers in the economy. At the same time, they are also careful not to make any demands that could be perceived as having a potentially negative financial effect on segments of their potential voter base. This is why the party generally rejects taxes on fossil fuels and also organizes campaigns against increased parking fees.

Their political success, however, is primarily due to their perceived internal unity and their relatively high personal appeal. The primary public spokespersons for the party are chairman Raul Hedebouw, parliamentary party leader in the Chamber of Representatives Sofie Merckx, General Secretary Peter Mertens, and Flemish parliamentary party leader Jos d’Haese. To this team we can add a fifth member, political director David Pesiteau.

There is only one woman in the top leadership of the PTB and only 13 women among all 37 representatives. This is perhaps the reason why they have less support among women voters. This year, however, the electoral lists are all balanced according to quotas.

In order to improve their communication with society, the PTB relies not only on personal contact established through polls or at info booths, parties, and strikes, but also their massive presence on social media. In the French-speaking region, the PTB spends more than any other party on Facebook advertising. Both of the party’s Facebook pages have a combined total of 309,000 followers — more than La France insoumise in France or Die Linke in Germany, and that in a country with a population of only 12 million.

This form of political communication has led to the PTB gaining significant support among the working class and lower-middle class, particularly in Wallonia and Brussels. An analysis of the 2019 EU Election Study confirms this. Throughout all areas of Belgium, 19 percent of middle class respondents voted for the PTB or were sympathetic to the party, as was the case with 33 percent of those unemployed, 18 percent of those with the lowest standard of living, and 28 percent of those with the second-lowest standard of living. The fact that the poorest respondents were not the largest group is primarily due to competition from the VB in Flanders.

This can also be seen in terms of level of education: 14 percent of respondents with a low level of education and 15 percent of those with an average level supported the PTB. Among academics, the party scored below average at 8 percent. This also explains why the PTB receives below-average results in university towns and must settle for an average of 11-percent approval among those under the age of 25.

As with most other parties of the radical left, their share of the vote is significantly lower in the countryside than in cities. In Wallonia, the PTB reached 17.9-percent approval in cities with more than 100,000 residents, whereas they only managed 10.6 percent in parishes with fewer than 5,000 residents.

Unchecked Flemish nationalism

It is worth noting that, despite their geographic and cultural proximity to France, the right-wing populists in Wallonia have thus far had little success. This is due not only to the fact that they have little to offer voters, but also because of the PTB’s policies, which have managed to garner support among classes that elsewhere tend to favour right-wing populists. However, it also has to do with the country’s history. Political scientist and PTB expert Pascal Delwit points out that there is no Belgian or Wallonian sense of national identity, although there is a very strong Flemish national identity. It is therefore rather remarkable that the PTB, at least according to polls, has reached second place in Flanders.

With its coal and steel industries, Wallonia was originally the wealthier region of the country, while agrarian Flanders was at a disadvantage. This gave rise to a reactionary Flemish nationalism that even collaborated with the German occupiers during World War II, thereby forfeiting any political role until the 1960s. Today, however, Flanders is the wealthier of the two regions, and the N-VA and VB make use of wealth-based, jingoistic ideologies in their political strategy, which they weaponize against the poorer region of Wallonia.

Flemish nationalism is primarily fuelled by three components: economic policy, which is positioned against poorer Wallonia; migration policy, which is particularly anti-Muslim in nature; and protectionist policies, which have adopted an anti-EU position. As with the 2019 elections, immigration is once again the most important political topic in Flanders, and both radical right-wing parties, N-VA and VB, are currently polling at 45 percent and 49 percent, respectively.

According to polls, the more right-wing VB has meanwhile surpassed the N-VA to become the strongest party in Belgium currently. The VB’s MEPs belong to various far-right groups in the European Parliament. VB works in the Identity and Democracy group together with the Austrian FPÖ, Le Pen’s National Rally in France, and the German AfD. Meanwhile the N-VA is part of the European Conservatives and Reformists group, and cooperates with the Polish PiS, Fratelli d’Italia, and Vox in Spain.

An election survey conducted in Flanders this year by scientists at the University of Antwerp revealed that the VB is winning votes from all other parties, although least of all from the PTB, which itself mainly draws in votes from the social-democratic Vooruit party, the N-VA, and the Green Party. In Flanders, VB is especially strong among voters with lower levels of income and education, whereas the PTB is particularly successful among voters with average income and education levels.

The risks of governing

The main risks facing the PTB, as identified by Pascal Delwit, include the (unlikely) establishment of a radical right-wing force in the French-speaking region, not to mention the PTB’s own alleged refusal to join any governments.

The PTB certainly has some rather difficult hurdles to overcome if they are to enter into a coalition of any sort. In the French-speaking region, where coalitions with the PS and the Green Party would be mathematically possible, election campaign banners display the motto “Le choix de la rupture”, which means, more or less, “Choosing to break away”. The party is also talking about breaking away from current politics in the EU election.

In Flanders, however, the reigning slogan, “We always stand by your side”, has a less militant tone, presumably because power is not on their side in that region. Nevertheless, the same four issues are always highlighted under both of these banners: taxation of multimillionaires, defence of purchasing power, abolishment of privileges for politicians, and strict caps on emissions for major polluters.

In 2019, the PTB demanded a minimum pension of 1,500 euro via a petition campaign in which 180,000 signatures were collected. The demand has since been implemented. Furthermore, at the beginning of the electoral campaign, when the PTB also raised the minimum wealth threshold for the millionaire tax they had been calling for to 5 million euro in order to protect medium-sized businesses, the social democratic PS outflanked them on the left and even accused them of having given up “the fight against the ultra-rich”.

The predominantly social democratic FGTB/ABVV trade union federation has repeatedly called on the parties of the Left to form a coalition government. Whether this happens or not, however, is not solely up to the PTB. The PS, which has for months accused the PTB of political uselessness because of their unwillingness to assume any responsibility for forming a coalition, will have to demonstrate whether they want to realize their left-wing demands or remain in a coalition with the liberals. Whether the PS can be persuaded to change their tune ultimately depends on the election results of the PTB.

Nico Biver lives in Marburg and has worked for various MPs in Die Linke. He is also a journalist and documentarian, examining the history and present of the global radical left.