Fifth column: The mandate kings

Summary

Any politician accused of graaien is fair game these days

Money grabbing

Graaien – or money grabbing – is the new buzzword in Flemish politics. The term was introduced by Peter Mertens, president of the far-left PVDA. He used it to describe tax-dodging millionaires, as well as politicians who enrich themselves. Any politician accused of graaien is fair game these days.

For a while, it was seen as something mostly done by French-speaking politicians, as a number of scandals about intercommunals such as Publifin broke. However, the same atmosphere – some politicians would call it a witch hunt – has taken hold in Flanders.

Tom Balthazar was one of the first to be accused of graaien. The socialist city councillor was set to succeed Daniel Termont (SP.A) as Ghent mayor. When it was revealed that he held a well-paid seat on the board of a private company comparable to Publifin, he resigned as councillor and decided not to stand at the elections.

Since Balthazar’s (and later Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur’s) resignation, looking into politicians’ mandates and incomes has become something of a national sport. Some less well-known politicians turned out to be true mandate kings: Antwerp city councillor Koen Kennis (N-VA) and East Flanders deputy Geert Versnick (Open VLD) each held dozens of paid seats with numerous organisations, both public and private.

Kennis received support from N-VA president Bart De Wever, who praised his expertise and said the councillor could easily make more money in the private sector.

Versnick (pictured left), who has a long career as a “fixer” in the liberal party, was left out in the cold. He resigned as city councillor in Ghent and announced he would no longer stand for office in the 2018 local elections. Last week he received a final blow, as it was revealed that he had recovered expenses for an expensive hotel in Bangkok.

The stays were stopovers during his travels in the Far East. There are no reports of irregularities, but Versnick understood full well that he could not counter popular perception. With his reputation tarnished, Versnick announced his resignation as a deputy in September.

Few pity Versnick, who seems like a textbook case of graaien. He is, however, mostly a politician from an older generation, a throwback to the days when combining mandates was seen as normal, and even useful for personal and political advancement. Times, it seems, are changing.

Photo courtesy geertversnick.be

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