Elections 2024: Political extremes ride high in the polls
Less than a year before Belgium's next elections, the two parties at either end of the political spectrum dominate the polls. What could the erosion of the political centre mean for Belgium?
Belgium will hold European, federal and regional elections on 9 June 2024. While it is too early for polls to have great predictive power, they already show some striking trends. Belgian voters are increasingly drifting towards the political extremes while traditional centrist parties lose ground.
If Belgians were to cast their ballots today, an unprecedented number would vote for the far-right Vlaams Belang party or the far-left Workers' Party of Belgium (PVDA/PTB). According to POLITICO's Poll of Polls, the two parties currently even rank first and second nationally.
Belgium's political system makes drawing first-order conclusions from opinion polls challenging
With 22 out of 150 seats, Vlaams Belang is projected to become the biggest party in the federal parliament, while PVDA/PTB would come in second with 21 seats. They are closely followed by the French-speaking socialists (PS) and Flemish nationalists (N-VA) with 20 seats each, but leave many other parties far behind them.
Belgium's political system makes drawing first-order conclusions from opinion polls challenging. While the centrifugal force towards both extremes is undeniable, comparing only party results can give a skewed view of the ideological forces at play. The impact of both parties' electoral success would also vary greatly depending on whether we look at federal or regional outcomes.
Parties or families
Comparing party popularity at the national level is tricky in Belgium. Most parties only stand for election on one side of the country's language border. Even on the federal ballot, Flemish voters cannot vote for Walloon parties and vice versa. Parties do often share historical roots and ideology with counterparts in the other region. Together, they form political families, such as the socialists, liberals or greens.
PVDA/PTB is the only truly national party in Belgium, standing for election across the whole country. The Flemish Vlaams Belang, on the other hand, has no ideological counterpart in Wallonia. Therefore, the two parties form their own political family, albeit in very different ways.
Not all Belgian political families are functional ones
That is why only comparing them with other parties can distort our view of ideological trends. Looking at political families, the socialists actually far outperform both Vlaams Belang and PVDA/PTB in the polls. Together, the French-speaking socialist PS and the Flemish socialist Vooruit are projected to win 36 national seats. The lead over other political stripes also appears smaller from this perspective: the liberal parties MR and Open Vld are projected to win a combined 21 seats.
But even this perspective is far from perfect, as not all Belgian political families are functional ones. While like-minded parties from different regions are likely to join forces to form a federal government, they do not always team up and sometimes even fall out in bitter conflicts. The gap between parties of different stripes is sometimes easier to bridge than the regional divide within ideological families.
The federal level
While the political family perspective adjusts the image of the far right and far left outright leading the polls, it goes little further in predicting what Belgium's next government might look like. On a federal level, parties need to reach across both ideological and regional divides. This is partly why Belgium holds the world record for the longest time taken to form a government.
What is clear is that the rise of Vlaams Belang and PVDA/PTB will not make this puzzle any easier. A cordon sanitaire against Vlaams Belang has been in place for decades, with all other parties agreeing never to cooperate with the far-right party. The Marxist PVDA/PTB is not a palatable coalition partner for other parties either. At the same time, there is less and less leeway for building a majority coalition without them.
This is partly why Belgium holds the world record for the longest time taken to form a government
Although to a lesser extent, the rise of Vlaams Belang and PVDA/PTB already emerged in the last elections in 2019. Forming a government after these elections proved to be uniquely challenging. Belgium took no less than 493 days and three caretaker governments before managing to form a permanent one.
So while most observers consider it virtually impossible for either Vlaams Belang or PVDA/PTB to come to power at the federal level, there is no doubt that their electoral results will have a major impact on government formation after June 2024.
A more pressing question is whether either party will become indispensable at the regional level. Polling at around 23 per cent in Flanders, Vlaams Belang has unequivocally become the biggest party in the region. The separatist party's surge already shocked in 2019, when it secured 18.5 per cent of the Flemish vote, up from less than 6 per cent five years earlier.
Vlaams Belang aims for regional independence but owes its popularity mainly to its anti-immigration agenda. Its most apparent ally would be the Flemish nationalist N-VA, the second largest party in Flanders polling at 22 per cent. But whether N-VA would be willing to break the cordon sanitaire to form a regional government remains unclear.
The PVDA/PTB is particularly popular in Wallonia, where it currently polls at 19 per cent. The party is also growing in Flanders, where recent polls show it gaining 10 per cent of the vote. Because its popularity is less regionally concentrated, the party's rise may not have as much regional impact. It is ideologically closest to the French-speaking socialist PS, the party projected to win the most votes in Wallonia (26 per cent). In practice, however, the two parties clash more often than they agree.
As at the federal level, a monster score for either party could still have a profound effect, regardless of whether they manage to come to power. It would further widen the gap between the traditionally right-wing north and the more left-leaning south of the country. In this way, the rise of the far left and far right could put greater regional autonomy firmly back on the agenda.
Vlaams Belang party leader Tom Van Grieken speaks at a protest rally in Brussels in May 2023 © BELGA PHOTO NICOLAS MAETERLINCK