Fifth column: Reds have the blues in Ghent

Summary

Does the Publipart controversy herald the end of SP.A rule in Ghent?

Questionable affairs

In Wallonia, what has become known as the Publifin scandal has dominated politics for a few weeks now. Over the weekend, the same dispute hit Flanders, with far-reaching outcomes for Ghent and the Flemish socialists, SP.A.

At the heart of the controversy are intercommunals. These are organisations originally set up by municipalities to take care of matters such as waste collection, water and energy distribution.

Over the years, intercommunals have become complicated structures, which lack transparency. Moreover, they are seen as money machines for politicians on their boards.

The website Apache last week revealed that Publifin’s associated organisations, Publipart and Publilec, have Flemish politicians on their boards. Among the names of those generously paid were Christophe Peeters (pictured) (Open VLD) and Tom Balthazar (SP.A), both city councillors in Ghent. Publipart also allegedly made dubious investments, possibly in a German manufacturer of chemical arms.

Citing a lack of “trust”, Balthazar resigned on Saturday, not just as the city councillor charged with housing and public works, but also as the top candidate for the 2018 local elections, which most probably would have landed him the seat of mayor. A quick resignation allowed Balthazar to avoid an association with the French-speaking PS, which has been embroiled in the Publifin scandal for weeks.

The episode left the Ghent socialists bitterly disillusioned. Balthazar has done nothing illegal, but financial ethic requirements are always stricter for those who claim to represent the common people. Ghent mayor Daniël Termont, also of SP.A, experienced that first hand, when he was accused of being too close with the bankrupted Optima bank.

Also, the greens have turned the pressure up. An alliance between SP.A and Groen, along with the popularity of mayor Termont, was the key to electoral victory in Ghent in 2012. But now Groen wants to distance itself from SP.A’s “old politics”.

It remains uncertain whether the parties will join forces again in 2018, as Groen is leaving that decision up to an internal vote. SP.A has traditionally been the strongest party in the bigger cities, but after it lost Antwerp to N-VA in 2012, this era seems to have come to an end.

In Hasselt, too, socialist Hilde Claes was forced to hand over the mayor’s seat to a CD&V politician recently because of a conflict of interest. In Leuven, popular socialist mayor Louis Tobback is set to retire.

Losing Ghent, the city where Flemish socialism has its very roots, would be nothing less than a disaster for SP.A.

Photo courtesy christophepeeters.gent