Photo Solidaire, Salim Hellalet

Will the PTB-PVDA participate in government in 2019?

Interview with Peter Mertens, chairman of the PTB-PVDA (Workers' Party of Belgium)

“Is PTB-PVDA ready for government?” With opinion polls in Belgium showing a significant rise in support for the radical left PTB-PVDA (Workers' Party of Belgium), party chairman Peter Mertens gets the question on a nearly daily basis. The rise of the radical left is no small matter. Currently, Belgium is governed by a right-wing coalition of liberals, Flemish nationalists and Christian-democrats, that has imposed an unpopular neoliberal agenda of austerity, degradation of public services and labor-market liberalization. In addition, mainstream politics has been struck by numerous scandals. The powerful leader of the Flemish nationalists has come under fire for his links to real estate speculators. Politicians of the French-speaking social-democratic party (PS) shamelessly enriched themselves with funds supposed to be earmarked for the delivery of public services (the PubliFin scandal), or for helping the homeless (the SamuSocial scandal). Liberals were named in tax haven scandals and in 'Kazakhgate', allegedly accepting money in exchange for legal immunity for wealthy friends of Kazakh president Nazarbayev. In this interview, PTB-PVDA chairman Peter Mertens acknowledges the people's huge desire for a change in policies, as expressed in the polls. At the same time, he highlights some obstacles and challenges for the PTB to consider government participation, noting for one that neither social-democrats nor the Greens appear to want a fundamental break with current policies. Here's for some clear-cut answers about the PTB's strategy. 

With polls showing a steep rise of the PTB, there’s much talk of the PTB participating in government. Any chance for this to happen?

Peter Mertens. The people have high expectations. They want a clear break with austerity policies that forces thousands of pensioners into poverty. They want to end the lack of financing for public services that impedes buses and trains from running as they should. They want to halt political corruption that underlies the Publifin, SamuSocial or Kazakhgate scandals. The radical rupture the PTB wants to bring about is no small matter.

The powers that really decide the country’s destiny are not neutral. Today’s powers, as exercised by the European establishment and the Belgian government, are completely dominated by big business and big banking. The Paradise Papers’ revelations confirm that even at the Belgian level there exists an interaction, a mutual cover-up between big banking and the ministers and their inner circle. Just recently, in Parliament, our MP Marco Van Hees denounced Finance Minister Johan Van Overtveldt from the Flemish nationalist N-VA, whom you can as well re-baptize the Minister at the service of big banking. He also denounced the ties between Foreign Minister Didier Reynders’ cabinet and big business. A case in point is the presence of Alexia Bertrand at the head of the Minister’s cabinet, being the daughter of billionaire Luc Bertrand. This guy built his fortune heading the Ackermans & Van Haaren holding, deeply involved in the Paradise Papers.

The political caste is at the service of the big shareholders, and these are imposing their influence upon all levels of society. We have always stated that we want a radical rupture in every domain where this influence operates. But obtaining such a rupture will not be possible without the mobilizing and organizing the people, without awareness-building and struggle by the workers and broad layers of the population. Which means that we're in it for the long haul.

Does that mean that the PTB is not interested in participation in government?

Peter Mertens. No, we say that in order to confront the power of capital power, a counter-power has to be built, with the people. But there is an idea which has struck deep roots, and that is strongly propagated from above, namely that people should just lend their votes every five years or so to a caste of professional politicians, after which they have to shut up. That’s what they call “the primacy of politics”. But why should we leave politics in the hands of those professional politicians and thus disarm the working people, robbing them of any political involvement?

We want the people to emancipate themselves. People have to become aware, to organize, to mobilize. It makes no sense to talk of taking part in government without having built such a counter-power. We repeat this time and again, and this is what we are working for.

Many people say they really can’t stand the policies of the MR (French-speaking liberals) and the N-VA (Flemish nationalists) any longer, and that anything should be done to kick them out of power. What do you answer them?

Peter Mertens. That they are right to be fed up with the MR’s and the N-VA’s policies, arrogantly at the service of the dominating class, the shareholders leading big industries, the big tax fraudsters with secret bank accounts in Panama. They attack the trade unions and pursue a limitless policy of privatization and liberalization. Of course, people get mad and want them out of office. Clearly, this attitude is positive. We saw the same fury in France against Nicolas Sarkozy, president of the ultra-rich from 2007 to 2012. But did things change when he was replaced by the social-democrat François Hollande, who had promised a “war on finance”? There was no rupture at all. Neither with the new president Emmanuel Macron, for that matter. We have to learn lessons from these experiences.

We need a serious and credible alternative that really breaks with the European Commission’s policies, with the influence of lobbyists in all the ministers’ cabinets, with the business circles interfering in Parliament's work. Currently, we see no signs in Belgium that other parties really want to make a clean break with all that. We are constantly asked if the PTB is ready to participate in government. I reply with another question: “Are social-democrats and Greens ready to radically change policies?” If not, you just make old stuff appear like new. The social-democratic Parti socialiste (PS) did not apply a rightist policy just because it was in a coalition with the right, but because it was itself contaminated with neo-liberalism. Look at Hollande, he had a majority in Parliament. Look at the Walloon cities that are ruled by an absolute PS majority. Look at the German Greens, how they are eager to govern with Merkel at almost any price.

Why do we need a confrontation with the European Union? Can’t we just start by changing things in Belgium?

Peter Mertens. After the 2008 crisis, the European Union member States were plunged into austerity policies fixed by the European Commission. In the EU countries of the periphery, this austerity was directly imposed by the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund). Greece is not allowed to spend more than 6% of the nation’s wealth for health policies. That is a dictatorial measure imposed by the European Commission, through the Troika. Similar policies could not be applied directly to the European core countries such as France or Germany or Belgium... So they use a different strategy. For instance: each year in October, the State budget has to be submitted first to the European Commission, which can comment on it and dictate choices on the national Parliaments. Such as cutting down harder on retirement pensions. In 2014, Belgium was “advised” by the European Commission to intervene in the automatic wage indexation. The Michel government decided to adapt the system of wage indexation. All these policies - raising the retirement age, lowering salaries, organizing flex jobs,… - are directly pushed by the European Commission, following a downward slope of radical neo-liberalism: austerity policies first, then privatization and liberalization, and in the end the submission of the workers’ organizations, the trade unions.

For the PTB, it is false to claim that you can be in a government and further the workers’ interests without breaking with that kind of policies. PS and Ecolo have never said that they would be ready to form a government that would challenge the entire set of the European Commission’s liberal dogmas. Quite on the contrary, they themselves approved a very significant number of these European measures. Let us just remember the liberalization of the energy sector or of the rail transport of goods. Taking part in government is out of the question if all that cannot be challenged, and if there is no understanding that confrontation with the European elites will be very tough. That it will not suffice to be a progressive government in words, but that such government will also have to organize the workers’ support, and to be capable to mobilize them and move them into action.

That is the lesson we have to learn from Syriza’s failure in Greece. Very carefully, Syriza had attempted such a confrontation, but it was weakened by the aggressive economic war launched by the banking circles in Frankfurt. And after the July 5, 2015 referendum, where a majority of Greeks said “no” to European austerity, the Syriza government didn’t dare to go on mobilizing the population. Today, Greece is captive of a new memorandum, precisely the opposite of what it wanted.

Some people speak about the Portuguese model, where there is a social-democratic government with outside support from the communists, among others. Can this model be transferred to Belgium?

Peter Mertens. Let’s be clear: the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) is not part of the government. Neither does it, from outside the government, support all government policies, but only some precise measures, that are going against the logic of austerity. The specific conditions have to be taken into account: Portugal was very seriously victimized by the 2008 crisis and then found itself under the dictatorship of the Troika, imposing drastic social and economic measures. I wrote about these in my 2012 book How Dare They? (Comment osent-ils?): the rise of VAT, privatization, halving holiday bonuses, cutting on health care and education, and reducing the minimum wage to the lowest level in Europe: 420 euros, just above the Portuguese poverty treshold of 360 euros.

Today, Antonio Costa’s new Portuguese government has been able to stop the Troika’s most drastic measures, under the pressure of the workers’ unions, the Portuguese Communist Party and the Left Bloc. This is of course good news, but a far cry from a genuine rupture with European austerity policies. The social-democratic prime minister Costa does not for one moment cast doubt on the European treaties, not even purely rhetorically. It can’t be denied that, by and large, Costa remains a prisoner of the treaties’ straitjacket. For instance: the limited social measures have come at the expense of public investments, and thus growth remains very weak. In 2010, public investments were still at 5,1% of the GDP, but in 2016 they stood at hardly 1.5%. While there's a need for massive public investments, the social-democratic government does not dare to take on the super-rich and did not free the much needed funds for a policy of public investments that could assure a sustainable development. That cannot be a model for us. Not only do we want to scrap the most serious austerity measures, we also want to put entirely different policies in place.

So, under present circumstances, with PS and Greens standing where they are, it’s a NO to a left coalition?

Peter Mertens. We don’t want to help the PS doing exactly what the SPD did in Germany, i.e. helping Merkel implement her policies. Or what François Hollande did in France. Same thing in the Netherlands, where the social-democrats appeared as very leftist critics of the liberal leader Rutte before the 2012 elections, only to form a coalition with him once they had won the elections. They paid for it afterwards: in the last elections they fell to 7% of the votes.

In all our neighboring countries, the social-democrats appear very left-wing when in the opposition, full of promises towards the trade unions, even promising a policy of rupture, but once in government there is no rupture whatsoever. At the end of the day, how come that far-right organizations such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National, and Geert Wilders’ party in the Netherlands, and the AfD in Germany, are able to grow? Because the workers have been deeply disappointed by governments with social-democratic parties taking part in them. It is irresponsible to follow that road if you claim to be leftist,.

Nevertheless, the newspaper Le Soir carried a headline on your November 8 interview that the PTB is “ready for a red-green coalition”?

Peter Mertens. Le Soir has chose to make a headline of a conclusion that is but their own. In that interview, I did not at all say that the PTB is ready for a red-green coalition. I even stated the opposite: at this time it is not possible for us to consider being part of a government in 2019, as we see neither Ecolo (Greens) nor the PS being ready to apply a genuinely leftist anti-austerity policy. More and more, Ecolo is positioning itself as “neither left nor right”, promoting centrist policies that can be nothing but a co-management of neo-liberal European policies. This being said, there are of course honest and valuable militants in each of these parties.

The PS keeps referring to the declaration of PTB’s spokesman Raoul Hedebouw that “the PTB will not participate in government until 15 years from now”. What is your opinion?

Peter Mertens. The PS uses these words to rebuff any critical examination of the policies that its own leaders have applied over the last 25 years. That's a bit too easy. We are not going to get stuck fixing a concrete date, are we? The world is changing rapidly, with major shocks. Who would have believed in 2012 that by 2017, walls would be built in Europe, the far-right would be France’s second largest political force in the presidential elections, that Trump would be elected president of the USA, that the United Kingdom would leave the European Union and that separatism would take a front seat on the political scene?

We don’t know, hence, what the next five years have in stock for us. But what is certain, is that different crises are converging (financial, economic, democratic, social and ecological crises) and are getting worse. History does not follow a linear path.

Three pathways are possible in Europe: either the continuation of the European Union’s centralized authoritarian policies, or the separatist and nationalist option, or else the road of a bottom-up counter-movement aspiring to radical social, democratic and ecological change. We work resolutely for this third alternative. But I insist, this strategy will take time.

Concerning other levels of power, what is the PTB’s view on the upcoming municipal elections?

Peter Mertens. First of all, the PTB is preparing these elections with a big survey, available online at www.grandeenquete.be. We want to set up a dialogue with the population of dozens of big municipalities and towns in the whole country. Why? In order to determine which priorities must change at the local level. We are faced with politics of liberal capitalist city management, dominated by bling-bling and prestige projects. The vision that a city is a supermarket where everything has to be left to the free market is more and more dominant. But for us, a city is above all a place where people live, work and relax together. In the word “community”, you have the word “common”, not the word “supermarket”.

More often than not, we observe the closure of local libraries or swimming pools, public areas that are not properly maintained due to the lack of staff, and the degradation of community schools due to the lack of funds. Towns and municipalities are forced to cut down on all neighborhood services because of underfunding.

Faced with this reality, we ask the people’s opinion on what they want. What are their solutions? Which struggles are the most important to them? We want their opinion on our concrete proposals, which are all based on the right to the city for all its inhabitants.

What about taking part in municipal governments?

Peter Mertens. For cities and municipalities, we also want a policy of rupture at the local level. Never will the PTB join a local coalition and apply austerity policies. We want a totally different kind of democracy than the usual arrogant top-down type, not involving the people. These points are crucial for us, and we are ready to talk with those parties that want to change course at the local level. But in a city as Liège, for instance, that seems rather difficult to us. How could the PTB ally itself with the local PS section, which set up the whole Publifin scheme? It seems difficult as well to imagine ourselves allied with the Brussels PS, the PS section that organized the SamuSocial scheme. Clearly, we will never be able to join a coalition that permits such practices.

A few months ago, I visited the city of Barcelona with a PTB delegation. One of the first measures the new left-wing mayor Ada Colau took, was total transparency of the mandates and income of all aldermen and city councilors of Barcelona. She reduced her own salary from 8000 to 2000 euros. She instituted a procedure so that people could denounce corruption scandals, and judicial investigations could follow. Each alderman of Barcelona has to visit all city districts, every two weeks. That may seem minor measures, but we also need those at the municipal level.

In the Antwerp city district of Borgerhout, the PTB-PVDA is part of the coalition with sp.a and Groen (the Flemish social-democratic and Green parties) …

Peter Mertens. As a city district, Borgerhout has very few powers. In that district, with 45,000 inhabitants, we are doing a good job. But for us, the program was what counted the most. Which popular program could be put in practice in Borgerhout? We pinpointed the youth as a priority. We did not start by discussing positions, we started on purpose by discussing the program. There may be other municipalities where a similar approach is possible. But first of all, we are going to listen to the people with our survey. We'll see what the result will be by February-March. We will analyze the situation case by case.

And even in Borgerhout, PTB-PVDA’s most important work is not the one accomplished by our alderman Zohra Othman, but by the local presence of our members and the interaction they create with the population. We call that concept 'street-council-street'. Our political action starts from the people and the workers. That’s why we are continuously listening to them, as with the survey we are now carrying out. That is the starting point for our study department, for our concrete alternative proposals and for the people's mobilization. After which we return to those same people with the results of our action. That is our way of making things move forward. But in order to do so, we need a strong organization, a PTB that is strongly rooted locally.

So the counter-power the PTB wants to build also applies to the local level?

Peter Mertens. Indeed, this is also important at the local level. Even if this may take on different forms. The last years we have seen lots of local mobilizations in municipalities. This is also important to take into account in our analysis. Where did people wage struggles to keep their local library or swimming pool open? Where did the inhabitants mobilize to obtain a better mobility, with an ecological vision for their town? In lots of places you have citizens’ groups, local committees, district-level committees, … We need this living democracy. But in many a municipality or town, everything is controlled by City Hall, and each bottom-up initiative gets stifled. City Hall must be at the people's service, with a genuine approach of proximity. Such closeness is needed not only for better explaining matters to the inhabitants, but also for better hearing their opinions and aspirations.

It takes time and energy to build such a counter-power. Is that why you always insist on the importance of strengthening the PTB?

Peter Mertens. We have an important responsibility indeed. In our Party Statutes and Congresses, we stress that the PTB will not solve things instead of the people themselves. This point already distinguishes us completely from other parties. We don’t think that people have to delegate their capacities, their power, their autonomy, their reactivity to a caste of professional politicians who will arrange everything for them. This emancipatory approach is part of our DNA. We want to strengthen our capacity to organize people, to raise their awareness and to mobilize them permanently and on many issues. There are of course the social and economic issues. For instance, the present government wants to impose a retirement pension system based on points, a kind of “lottery” in which nobody knows the real amount he will finally get once he or she retires. We launched a campaign www.pastoucheanospensions.be in order to raise awareness and mobilize people against this new attack on our pensions. Some people maintain that the only solution is to wait for the 2019 general elections and that until that time, any mobilization will be superfluous. But we maintain that a more favorable balance of power has to be built from now on if we want to stop that pension reform based on points.

We want to do apply a similar approach on many other topics as well: on the problem of racism, of gender equality, of democratic rights and of access to justice. The resistance against this pension system with points needs a strong social movement. The climate needs a popular mobilization as the one we just saw in Bonn. We need mobilizations on various issues. But we also need a party with a strong backbone, with principles, and with the commitment to organize this break with politics dominated by the power of big money. 

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