VIEW FROM ABROAD: Belgium’s communal vote was very different this time

Updated 20 Oct 2018

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In Brussels, the Green party Ecolo-Groen — led by Zakia Khattabi and Patrick Dupriez — made a breakthrough by finishing first and second in a number of local councils. — File Photo
In Brussels, the Green party Ecolo-Groen — led by Zakia Khattabi and Patrick Dupriez — made a breakthrough by finishing first and second in a number of local councils. — File Photo

I VOTED in the Belgian communal elections last Sunday. No big deal, since it wasn’t for the first time. Belgium goes to the polls very often and voting is obligatory. So like a good citizen, I cast my ballot. Each time. Dutifully.

This time it was different. This time I voted with intention and purpose. And with a view to send a strong political message. And low and behold, it worked.

In Brussels, the Green party Ecolo-Groen — led by Zakia Khattabi and Patrick Dupriez — made a breakthrough by finishing first and second in a number of local councils.

In contrast to the populists, racists and ethno-nationalist parties which get all the attention, the Greens stand for an open, tolerant and multicultural Europe.

And as the political temperature rises across Europe, Belgian communal elections were an important moment, a not-to-be-missed opportunity to say enough is enough.

Last Sunday was in fact, a perfect day to vote, warm and sunny, warmer and sunnier than it should be in mid-October. I walked leisurely to the local school converted into a polling station.

I went into the voting booth, followed the instructions on how to use the new sophisticated system of electronic voting I had been sent by my commune a few days earlier and smiled in middle-aged triumph as I emerged after pushing all the necessary buttons. My vote was cast.

I smiled at the young man outside the booth who asked if I needed help. “No, I know how to use the electronic system,” I grinned proudly. He winked back. I smiled. Being Belgian is fun.

But this time it was about more than fun. Despite the bleak headlines, Europeans are using the polls of different kinds, in different countries, in different ways, to send different kinds of strong messages to politicians.

In Brussels, the big news is that voters in the municipality of Ganshoren, elected a black mayor for the first time — the father of international football star Vincent Kompany.

Pierre Kompany arrived in Belgium in 1975 as a refugee from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, a former Belgian colony. He became active in politics in 2006 as a councillor, and took a seat in the Brussels regional parliament in 2014.

But Kompany is perhaps best known for his famous sons. Vincent Kompany is both the captain of English Premier League club Manchester City and a constant fixture on the Belgium national team, the Red Devils (full disclosure: I am a fan). Vincent’s brother, Francois, plays for Belgian side KSV Roeselare.

Both brothers were quick to congratulate their father in an Instagram post shared with Vincent’s 1.6 million followers.

“History! We are so proud of you dad,” Vincent wrote. “He’s the first black mayor in Belgium — it’s never happened before, it’s historic.... congratulations to my dad!”

True but it’s not that rare. Europe’s cities are increasingly opting for mayors who reflect diversity and inclusion.

And it’s not new. At least 12 years ago, I found myself in a small town in Slovenia and, suffering from a terrible case of a frozen shoulder, headed to the local clinic for some emergency medical assistance.

The nurse did not speak English, I did not speak Slovenian and I was in agony when I heard a gruff voice say in English: “What on earth is the problem?” I turned around to see Peter Bossman, Slovenia’s one and only black mayor — born in Ghana, a medical doctor and elected mayor in Piran, a small town near the Italian border.

Dr Bossman gave me an injection, loads of painkillers and soothed me with kind words. I shook his hand and said “thank you for saving my life”. He laughed out loudly, told me to stop being such a drama queen and sent me on my way.

I met Dr Bossman several years later at a conference of mayors in Brussels. He did not remember me of course. But I told him of the incident and my everlasting gratitude. And I said, “We need you in Brussels.”

He said thanks but no thanks because he wanted to retire. And the last time I was in Slovenia, friends said he had indeed given up politics to concentrate on being a doctor again.

As too many Europeans succumb to the siren song of populism, men like Kompany, Bossman, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Rotterdam’s Abu Taleb — among many others — are proof that many Europeans couldn’t care less about race, religion and colour. All they want is good, efficient governance.

Racists exist in Europe as they do elsewhere. Many Europeans are expected to vote for populists in next year’s elections to the European Parliament. But as the recent polls in Brussels have shown, others will not. And that’s cause for reassurance — and celebration.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2018