Images of rioting protesters and burning cars in Brussels were published in mainstream media across the globe on November 7.
The previous day’s protest in Brussels did end in violent clashes, with 50 injured and 30 arrested, but it was the spirited but peaceful demonstration of 120,000 Belgians that was the key aspect of the day.
The march represented the largest such mobilisation in Belgium for 30 years, taking many by surprise. The union-organised march, backed by three largest labour federations, was called to oppose the new coalition government’s plans to implement a suite of austerity measures.
As well as unionists, the demonstration featured large contingents of students, feminists and independent leftists. Many were attending such a demonstration for the first time.
The rally included a one-day stoppage by all public transport workers in Brussels, the start of a series of strike actions leading to a nation-wide general strike on December 15.
The price for inter-city rail tickets to Brussels was lowered on the day to help protesters from other Belgian cities join the demonstration.
Despite many special train services being added, trains from several regions were completely full and some people were unable to attend the rally.
Smaller demonstrations were also held in other cities, with 20,000 gathering in Anvers and 9000 in East Flanders.
The protest called for safeguarding and reinforcing the purchasing power of the workers, preserving a strong social security system, investment in long-term jobs, and progressive taxes.
The protests involved a raucous occupation by 150 young activists of the Federation of Belgian Enterprises headquarters.
Clashes with police began hours after the start of the protest. Police used water cannons and tear gas against protesters, who threw makeshift projectiles. Later in the afternoon, some overturned and set fire to several vehicles.
This was reported by Britain's Daily Mail as “100,000 protestors clash with police,” but only several hundred protesters took in these clashes.
There have also been reports that some of the rioters were far-right militants who infiltrated the demonstration, and possibly police agent provocateurs.
Right-wing coalition forms government
On the evening of the demonstration, Belgium's new prime minister, 36-year-old Charles Michel, told the media he was “listening” to the concerns of the protesters.
Yet the new government remains committed to its program of austerity measures. The measures include raising the pension age from 65 to 67, ending the fixed link between wages and inflation, and cutting public spending.
These mark a break with the “Belgian model” of social dialogue between trade unions and government.
The new measures claim to be a bid to balance the budget, with national debt now at more than 100% of GDP. Yet the new government is lowering taxes for high-income earners and employers, cutting its capacity to raise state revenue.
The Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB/PVDA) says the government has no democratic mandate to introduce such measures. Raising the pension age, for instance, never figured in any the election platforms of any of the parties in the governing coalition.
The new coalition was sworn in on October 11, four months after the elections took place.
It marks a significant shift in Belgian politics. For the first time in 26 years, the ruling coalition excludes the centre-left Socialist Party.
It is also the first government in Belgian history to include conservative Flemish nationalist party New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which is in coalition with other neoliberal parties, the Reformist Movement, Open VLD (the Flemish liberals), and the Christian Democrats.
The N-VA makes up the largest part of the coalition, having won 20% of the vote in the May elections.
To holds the coalition together, it appears the N-VA is willing to relax its pro-independence stance to pursue a broader agenda of neoliberal reforms across Belgium.
Despite winning only 20 seats compared to the N-VA’s 33, the only francophone party in the coalition, Reformist Movement, took a number of key ministerial positions, including Michel as prime minister.
Further resistance planned
The November 6 march marks the start of a series of strike actions planned in different regions in Belgium, taking place on 24 November, 1 December and 8 December, leading up to a nation-wide general strike on 15 December.
It is unlikely such demonstrations will force the government to make serious changes to its austerity program, but unions have indicated they will consider relaunching resistance from January 5 if the government does not meet demands.
Defeating the new government's austerity policies will require more than just social resistance. It will also depend on a political force emerging to challenge the neoliberal orthodoxy of the right-wing parties, as well as the politics of compromise represented by the Socialist Party.
A united electoral project centred on the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB), the largest left-of-social democracy party, yielded results earlier this year, winning two seats in national parliament.
This is the first time since 1980 a party to the left of the Socialist has entered parliament.
The PTB has put forward its “Cactus Plan” for social resistance, a plan spiky enough to “burst the balloons of austerity”.
Launched by a demonstration of more than 7000 supporters on October 19, this program calls for social, ecological, and democratic renewal in Belgium. This included big expansions of social programs, investment in green energy, new forms of participatory democracy and a sharp break with the European Fiscal Compact.
The size of the November 6 march shows there is a broad base of support for defending and deepening social services and progressive policies.