For the first time ever, a Communist political party has joined a majority coalition in a Belgian municipality. Following the municipal elections last month, parties across the country have been trying to forge working coalitions, often more to keep rivals out of power than because they are a natural fit for a relationship.
The agreement was reached between Flemish socialists s.pa in Zelzate in East Flanders and members of the far-left workers’ party PVDA (who campaigned in cooperation with their French-speaking counterparts PTB) for them to govern the town together.
The new coalition is not only historic, it has raised the hackles of virtually every other party. According to Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever, president of Flemish nationalist party N-VA, the agreement breaks what he referred to as a “cordon sanitaire” – an agreement among other parties not to join forces with the PVDA/PTB. Technically speaking, the only formal agreement on a cordon sanitaire was in regard to Vlaams Blok, now Vlaams Belang. However the other parties have joined in condemning the sp.a’s move.
“This is a bad business,” De Wever told VTM News. “It’s a pity that the left-wing parties in this country don’t practice democratic hygiene. The statutes of this party [PVDA] still state that they are communists, and where communists are in charge, there is poverty and often dictatorship.”
Gwendolyn Rutten, president of the conservative Open VLD, compared the PVDA to Vlaams Belang, who once achieved 25% of the vote in De Wever’s city of Antwerp.
“Extreme right-wing and extreme left-wing mirror each other,” she tweeted. “They are symbols of lack of liberty and oppression. Even if you understand their analysis or find them interesting, their principles undermine liberal democracy. That is why we would never work with them.”
The outgoing mayor of Zelzate, Frank Bruggeman (VLD-SD), also spoke out against the coalition. This is a sad day, he told the VRT, not only for Zelzate but for the whole country. And he advised sp.a president John Crombez to think carefully over what his colleagues in the town were doing, and the effects it could have on future attempts to form coalitions with other parties at a regional or national level.
The municipal council in Zelzate will be composed of two members of each party, with the socialists taking the mayor’s job, and PVDA the first alderman’s. According to political expert from the ULB, Pascal Dewit, speaking to La Libre Belgique, the experience could, if it succeeds, anchor the increased vote seen for PVDA/PTB in the most recent elections, by demonstrating they are not wild-eyed extremists but are capable of working in power.
The former industrial town of Zelzate, which sits on the Ghent-Terneuzen canal linking the port of Ghent with the Scheldt estuary and the open sea, has always been one of the reddest parts of Flanders. The PVDA has held at least one communal seat since 1982, the number rising to six out of 23 in 2006 and staying there since. In the latest election, the party won 22.8% of the vote, compared to 24.9% for the socialists. Bruggeman’s mayoral party scored 26.3%, but has been ousted by the new coalition, with its joint total of 47.7%.