Head to head: Party politics during a pandemic

The Luxembourg Social-Democrats (LSAP) have been in one form of coalition or another since 2004, but what will it take to recover recent losses in the run-up to the 2023 local and national elections, marred by the coronavirus crisis?

Alex Bodry was the LSAP’s party president from 2004 to 2014, was elected to the Chamber of Deputies six times and served in government from 1989 to 1999. He is currently a member of the State Council. The senior politician is in conversation with Amir Vesali, the secretary general of the LSAP’s youth branch, the Jonk Sozialisten. Vesali arrived in Luxembourg as the child of refugees from Iran. He studies law and in the 2018 general elections came fourth in the North district.

Are the Socialists still socialist enough?

Alex Bodry: I wouldn’t say that our election programmes from the 1980s were more left or socialist than today’s. We have to serve two electorates: One that sees the party almost as a union, but that is more conservative. And on the other hand, an electorate that is more progressive on socio-political issues. The LSAP must straddle those two electorates and be authentic and credible for both. That’s a difficulty every people’s party faces.

Amir Vesali: I don’t like the term people’s party. It implies you are looking in every direction and need a wide platform to get everyone under one roof. In Europe, where societies are becoming more diverse and pluralistic, that is difficult to achieve. The challenge for a socialist party is to define what justice and fairness mean for us and compare that to our electorate. It’s important to define new areas and address new people.

In 2018, there were rumblings within the party about its orientation, the election programme, that it needs to become younger. Have these concerns been addressed?

Vesali: Absolutely. The party president [Yves Cruchten] has recognised the need for dialogue and if the dialogue is right then it doesn’t get this far. Our ideas evolve but the party’s basic principles are the same. I recognise that it’s difficult to defend LSAP interests when you’re in a coalition with two other parties. But the demands that were made at the time have been fulfilled.

Bodry: Half of the candidates in the last elections were first timers. Around a quarter were younger than 40. We are the only gender equal group in parliament. A lot has changed. One of the difficulties of having been in government for a long time is that you see everything through the lens of the coalition. If there’s something you know you’ll struggle to find an ally for, there’s a tendency to just not add it to the programme or water it down, so that you don’t face the accusation of not fulfilling your promises. That’s where we need to be careful.

In the last elections, the LSAP lost three seats in parliament. In the 2017 local elections it lost the majority in Esch-sur-Alzette. How can the party recover these losses in 2023?

Bodry: The time of absolute majorities at commune level is running out for all parties. There are more lists competing with each other. At local level, the question is mostly whether people are happy with their commune leadership. We didn’t lose a lot of votes in 2018 but lost three seats because of their distribution. It’s important to follow a straight path, not to waver, because then people won’t be able to tell what your position is anymore. And if you feel that you must make too many concessions, then don’t go into government. Housing will be the crucial question. The party must have firm policies on this in its programme.

Vesali: I would go one step further. We must say that if we are part of a government, we want responsibility for this portfolio. In terms of the elections, I don’t think that we will do worse, but we have to see how this crisis develops until the elections. That will be decisive. It’s also a personnel question. It’s an individualised system. In this crisis we have seen that with a person who manages well, Paulette Lenert, public opinion shifts quickly.

The Chamber should be a mirror of society and the balance still isn’t right. My generation isn’t represented. There’s an enormous discrepancy between people who get continuously re-elected, also because they are doing a good job, and young candidates who cannot get in.

What is your impression of how the tone in politics has changed?

Bodry: It’s rougher. The tone is sharper but within a relatively broad consensus. For me, it’s somewhat artificial. It’s an opposition built on words, hooked on details, when you’re actually in agreement on a lot of the substance. I worry that compromise has become a curse word. Luxembourg politics needs to be ready to compromise rather than building artificial fronts.

Vesali: Among the youth parties, I have to say that the experience is more positive. We are aware that if we want to have an impact on our parent parties, we must work together. But a lot of the people in the youth parties are also friends. We grew up with each other, went to school together. Even if you diverge ideologically, you want to look out for each other.

The pandemic has raised a lot of questions about the introduction of a wealth or inheritance tax. Can the parties afford to delay decisions on this until the next election just because it’s not part of the coalition programme?

Bodry: We don’t know how long this crisis will last and who’s going to pay. No party is prepared to give a concise answer. Those who can afford to pay more should pay more. We need to think about a fair way of doing this. I would warn of getting hooked on buzzwords, such as an inheritance tax. This doesn’t have a precedent in Luxembourg. Those who really have a fortune will, with the help of advisers, manage that fortune so it won’t be impacted by an inheritance tax. You risk weakening the middle class.

Tax policy is important because it is a about redistribution, and there’s room for more justice. I would go in the direction of a wealth tax, because we used to have one. It’s difficult to explain why income from labour is taxed more highly than revenue from capital. These are the discussions we need to have.

Vesali: An idea like an inheritance tax isn’t innately bad or good. It’s about the effect. A wealth tax could have the same impact, or a property tax. But what cannot happen is that the same mistakes are made as after the 2008 financial crisis where the middle class was massively affected. We need to try and target the upper echelons of society that own more. Maybe they can afford to find loopholes, but then those loopholes need to be closed. I still think that an inheritance tax is an option. Before the next elections the topic of taxation must be defined.

The young socialists have been described as the party’s conscience. Do you agree with this?

Bodry: They’re the LSAP’s good conscience that sometimes makes the party have a guilty conscience. They should keep us on our toes to make sure that we keep that government lens in check.

Vesali: Being the party’s conscience is part of our identity and we want to keep this. It’s not always easy because we also don’t agree with each other on everything. But there are other important missions. The young socialists are there to get fresh blood into the party and recruit. We bring new topics to the table, like mental health. Young people see that we care about issues they care about.

What is the particular challenge to involve people who cannot vote in politics?

Bodry: It’s being attempted for decades. Our integration and citizenship working group, SPIC, has probably worked best. It always boils down to languages. When people don’t know Luxembourgish, the Luxembourgers are forced to speak French or English. Then they feel marginalised. Chapters that are more multicultural, such as in Luxembourg City, manage, but it’s incredibly difficult.

Vesali: This needs to be addressed across party lines with a strategy. The question about voting rights hasn’t been answered forever by the referendum. It is what it is, but that doesn’t solve the problem of political participation and having a voice. There must be a platform for exchange and consultation, and I could eventually imagine a consultative body that advises parliament and issues opinions on topics that affect foreigners who aren’t being represented. Not doing anything isn’t a solution.

Mr Bodry, where do you see Amir Vesali in ten years’ time?

Bodry: He made an impressive start in the last elections and I think if he keeps up his commitment and ambition, he will achieve the jump into national politics.

Vesali: That really honours me. I was surprised by the election result because I’m from a more conservative region less likely to vote for an atypical Luxembourger like me. But what I would wish is for this kind of result to be possible for more young candidates, to have realistic chances to get into the Chamber.