In the open country

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It was summer. The vacations… I had forgotten how good it feels to see the landscape, to leave one’s habits behind while basking in the sun and the water; how quickly the time passes with nothing to do; how violent the shock of the return can be…

I landed at the Gare du Midi, immediately confronted with a crowd of stressed people, poverty, traffic, pollution, wastelands and offices. It took me only a few minutes to lose the benefit of several weeks spent in the fresh air of the countryside. The city quickly takes over. Especially since another campaign was in full swing here. In a country where compromise is the key word in government formation, communal elections are the climax of our democratic life. Well-known tune. This is the time when the candidates are everywhere, in the street, on the terraces, in the markets, shaking hands, listening to the citizens.

Hundreds of posters were displayed in the public space. Nothing new at first glance, a sort of giant contest of failed poses and falsely spontaneous smiles. Some of the faces looked so familiar to me that I realized I had already seen these same photos: there are unchanging candidates, I even suspect that some of them get younger every 6 years.

As I drove through several neighborhoods, I saw these names and faces scrolling by and sometimes changing from one street to another, a sign that I had just crossed the border between two municipalities or crossed an immigrant neighborhood in which the parties were betting on an ethnic vote by pushing candidates from this or that community, who had most often inherited a non-eligible seat. Among the hundreds of businesses that had agreed to display posters in their windows, how many had done so out of conviction or to avoid being seen by elected or future local officials?

I was struck by the almost total absence of political content. It is true that issues, programs, ideas and proposals rarely have a prominent place in this type of campaign. This time, however, even the slogans had almost disappeared, replaced sometimes by a bad pun, an empty sentence or by absolute nothingness. « I’m pushing the list, » announced one candidate, not without some pride. « I’m not a politician, I’m just like you, » said one of his colleagues, while others spoke of cleanliness, commitment, vision, confidence or the future, without giving any further details on these professions of faith that do not commit to much and over which we will have no control once the vote is over.

When I got home, I found a pile of election flyers overflowing my mailbox. In my absence, no party had respected my clearly stated refusal to receive advertising. Perhaps they had not felt concerned by the instructions. Their brochures were more marketing than public service announcements or political programs. As I climbed the stairs, I thought to myself that party titles were the last real distinguishing marks in politics. I quickly changed my mind: after all, why is it contradictory to be a democrat and a socialist, a reformer and an environmentalist, a francophone and a humanist, etc.? What do such banners still cover?

Thinking that if the political debate didn’t exist in the public space it had to be in the media, I decided to take the temperature of the campaign on the internet. I discovered in my mailbox the link to a TV show about Walking Madou, a section of the Leuven road that has become temporarily pedestrian. In the subject, a Brussels minister was raving about an urban planner who was « so creative » that he had the idea to paint the street yellow. The presenter, passing his arm on the shoulder of the prodigy, asked him why this choice… then took back the answer: « it is the only color that is not taken by a political party ». I saw in this sentence the sign of a deep-rooted refusal in the French-speaking media to give credit to what deviates from the pillars of Belgian politics. Although yellow is not associated with any of the traditional parties, it is widely used by Flemish nationalist parties, including the country’s main vote getter. But for some, there are only four colors, those of the totems that the SNCB plants at the entrance of the big stations of the country. The rest does not exist. But if the largest party in the country is, in the minds of the editorialists, an accident or an aside in history, how can smaller parties running in local elections claim to be treated any better? When a little media space is devoted to them, it is to be called wacky and to see their program mocked. And when they emanate from immigrant communities, the major parties and the media agree to discredit them, since they do not correspond to what is expected of them.

A few days later, I bought the newspaper… The big daily newspaper that rises, titled: « In Brussels, more than one out of two mayors will be re-elected ». I wondered what the point of voting was if he already knew the results, but I recognized the reality of baronies. Some mayors were even able to hold their positions until their death. The exercise of power is a profession reserved for those who want to make a career of it. In such a system, certain practices carried out to obtain votes and gain or maintain power are necessarily not very virtuous. The Brussels press, so quick to give lessons in morality and to denounce the excesses of representative democracy in Wallonia or elsewhere, seemed not to see the practices taking place under its eyes.

Brussels is probably an exception… The proof? The day after the elections, against all odds, several barons fell. Under fierce opposition or a great debate of ideas? No. More prosaically, their former allies, with whom they had sometimes made secret agreements, turned to others… with whom they had sometimes made other agreements. These unexpected reversals not only demonstrated the obsession of the candidates with gaining power, but often had nothing to do with the establishment of coherent political alliances, or even with extra-local strategies or revenge. Raging at the failed parachuting of one of their own in such a commune, some made the others pay for it in another coalition, before being overturned in return in another constituency, etc. In this game, even the parties claiming to have political ethics have shown their capacity to be as vicious as the others. As for the media, all busy tracking down invectives and low blows, they have almost obscured subjects on which it might have been useful to meditate, such as the abstention rate: 17% in Brussels…

The only thing to be happy about is that the campaign is over. That’s something. Until the end, it will have been a moment of generalized depoliticization, emptying of its substance the very idea of the mandate and the delegation of power. At least she had the merit of reminding us that politics is not about voting on vague promises. It means mobilizing, resisting, proposing, creating, inventing other modes of deliberation, consultation and decision…

But here we are with new elected officials who will represent us for 6 years, thanks to the relationship of trust they have built with us. The representative model has once again shown its efficiency. Residents, collectives, associations, activists: the ballot boxes have spoken! We will now be able to participate in the spaces provided for this purpose. Beyond this limit, our actions and demands will always be confronted with the supreme argument of the legitimacy of universal suffrage. Until the next campaign…

Gwënael Brees

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