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Under the wave of populism and nationalism: What, if any, is the future for the Christian Democrat party?

On the 26st of May 2019, we had federal and regional elections in Belgium. 130 days later, the Flemish government was formed, while we are still waiting for formation of the federal government.  In 2010-11 the record for the formation of a federal government was 541 days, so they still have some time…  Today, 5 governments out of the six needed to run our federal country of 11 million inhabitants are installed. For the careful reader: no, I did not forget a zero here… we are talking about a population of 11 million citizens, which is led by 6 governments spread according to cultural and linguistic barriers that characterize our country.  Cities such as New York manage to do so with 1 mayor, I know.  But I do not want to start to reflect let alone complain on the complexity of our bureaucratic structures. What is intriguing is the result of the elections, and for me as a theological ethicist, more in particular the result and the response of the Christian democratic party to all this.

Following the general trend in Europe, but also elsewhere in the world, the election in Flanders (the Dutch speaking and Northern part of the country) was won by the extremist parties: while the extreme leftist party won 3%, it was the extreme right party ‘Vlaams Belang’ (literally translated as ‘the Flemish Interest’) which could claim victory in these elections as they went from 5,9% to 18,5%. All the so-called mainstream parties of ‘liberals’, ‘socialists’ and ‘Christian democrats’ lost. But also the rather recent NV-A, the Flemish Nationalist party.

In 1991 the day Vlaams Belang won the elections is called ‘Black Sunday’. Because of their extreme stand points, not free from explicit racism and xenophobia, all mainstream parties agreed to a ‘cordon sanitaire’, implying a refusal of those parties to form a coalition with Vlaams Belang, as long as a majority can be formed without them. Since 1991, Vlaams Belang was not able to win an election, due to the rise of NV-A which profit from their voters who did not want to be associated with the extreme standpoints of Vlaams Belang. Until now. Not unsurprisingly, because NV-A just finished its first legislature of being part of the governing coalition. And as often, the present coalition pays the price during the next election if people feel that things are not going well. Consequently, this time even the rightwing nationalist NV-A was not able to be a buffer for people who tend to vote for the right. And thus, our country followed the same trend as in the rest of Europe and the world where the political right is growing stronger again. Or I should say: our Flemish region does so, because in Wallonia, the Southern and French speaking part of Belgium, the socialists won. As you can imagine, it seems rather impossible to form a coalition at the federal level with nationalists (who feel supported by the extreme right voters, although their party is not accepted as a potential coalition partner) on the one hand and the socialists on the other.  This explains why the formation of our federal government is still continuing five months after our elections.

With 15,4%, this was the worst result ever in their political history for the Christian democrats. For the sake of historical awareness: this was the party that since the Second World War was sometimes able to gain an absolute majority. And most of the times it was in charge of the formation of governments as they just needed one coalition partner to form one – until 1999, the first time they were not part of the government since their existence. Hence, with this result in May, it became immediately clear that the party is in crisis; its long term survival is insecure. As often in our highly secularized region, the roots of the party are questioned: to what extent is identifying oneself with the Christian tradition still a smart political choice? Are not its Christian roots a hindrance rather than a unique selling point in a postsecular society where even some kind of alignment with ‘Kultur Christentum’ can no longer be assumed?  Some plead to remove the reference to this tradition in the party’s name, but it appears a bit too early to pursue this proposal. And would this removal mean the party would also give up its Christian roots as a source of inspiration for their standpoints and policy?

Or maybe the problem is not that the Christian Democrat party is too close to its Christian roots, but rather drifted away too much from it. For what is the reference to Christian values worth, if the party just became part of a coalition which makes it harder for refugees and migrants to integrate in our society, for low-income families to have access to social security making this access more conditional, for civil society to flourish as it cuts budgets drastically, for ecological awareness to rise further as this government puts its trust in old recipes for energy security, … ? It is clear that the party agreed to follow the move to the right, because that is apparently the wish of the voters.[1] Values such as solidarity, subsidiarity and stewardship might have been mainstream for a few decades, but in the present times marked by populism, a discourse of fear and nationalism, a reinterpretation and rehabilitation in their radical sense, could make these values into a unique selling point I believe. Their underlying personalist anthropology results in an unconditional claim to social and political goods for persons – every person, no matter what. As such, they offer a countercultural interpretation which can change the narrative from polarization and conflict to connection and mutual care. As a theological ethicist, I’m eager to reflect on and contribute to how Christian social and political ethics can contribute to this narrative. Interlocutors are more than welcome to join me in this reflection…!


[1] Whether that is the case, is by the way the question. Maybe the results of the election can also be seen as a signal of protest. Referring to the yellow vest movement, the French novelist Édouard Louis claims however that they primarily vote against the establishment. Which extreme then, is less important, according to him. ‘But [people] were always hesitating between the far right and the left, which was a way of saying, “Who is going to support me? Who is going to make me visible? Who is going to fight for me?”’ (Cf. Alexandra  Schwartz, “To Exist in the Eyes of Others: An Interview with the Novelist Édouard Louis on the Gilets Jaunes Movement” in The New Yorker, 14 December 2018, ) I wonder to what extent this is also true for these elections. As a side note: Louis grew up as Eddy Bellegeule in Hallencourt, a small, remote village in Northern France, suffering from post-industrial malaise. This is one of those regions were the vast majority vote for the far right Front National. Its residents are poor people, often in a racist and homophobic environment as he himself confirms. Growing up in this milieu as gay, was all but evident as Louis’ novels show. However, his books do not so much reflect self-complaint or ‘misery memoire’, as they reveal the structural causes: it is their poverty, exclusion and marginalization which turn these people into racists and homophobic people. Hence, his support for the outcry of the yellow vests.