BRUSSELS, May 2 (UPI) -- Whoever believes Belgium is boring and politics is dead should have been at Thursday's May Day rallies in this small, affluent country best known for its strong beers, calorific chocolates and pedophile scandals.
With just more than 2 weeks to go until Belgians head to the polling booths, the divisions between right and left, working class and middle class and French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders and were laid bare in a series of election rallies across the country.
In Brussels, the headquarters of both the European Union and NATO, the French-speaking Socialist Party, known by its local initials PS, commemorated Europe's Labor Day in traditional style.
At a concert venue in the run-down St Josse district of the Belgian capital, Socialist apparatchiks gathered to hear the party's politburo deliver a series of tub-thumping speeches that would not have sounded out of place in Karl Marx's era.
Against a blood-red backdrop emblazoned with the Socialist's campaign slogan ("Progress for all,") party leader Elio di Rupo told the largely middle-aged and middle-class audience of activists: "My thoughts go out first of all to all the oppressed people on the Earth."
According to the dandyish son of Italian immigrants, these included the people of Iraq "who have just suffered the worst of aggressions," Belgian pensioners forced to suffer welfare cuts and the innocent victims of capitalist speculation and colonialist folly.
In full Biblical flow, Di Rupo pledged that the PS would not succumb to neo-liberal temptations but would "always be on the side of the weak, the sick and those who suffer."
This meant saying no to business-friendly tax cuts, no to the privatization of services like Belgium's ailing state-owned railways, no to private pensions to fund the country's demographic time-bomb and no to any tinkering with the country's generous social security system.
But most of all -- according to Di Rupo -- it meant saying no to the very system which has made Belgium one of the richest countries in the world.
Hailing the workers who had marched behind the red flag ("our symbol") in defense of workers' rights, the socialist chief said: "May 1 is a special moment to reaffirm the need for a permanent resistance to capitalism."
After the obligatory standing ovation, the party faithful held their fists in the air and belted out the communist anthem "L'Internationale" before leaving to the strains of "Che Commandante" -- an upbeat Cuban ditty.
If the PS was a no-hoper party on the fringes of Belgian politics, this festival of "Old Labor" thinking could easily be dismissed. But the Socialist Party forms part of Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt's "rainbow coalition" government and is the largest grouping in Wallonia.
So at the end of the meeting, I asked Deputy Prime Minister Laurette Onkelinx if the PS really was as anti-capitalist as it sounded.
"Of course we are against an unregulated market economy," she replied in a masterful display of ambiguity.
As the minister was sped away to another May Day celebration in her chauffeur-driven car, several poor Moroccans and Turks glanced up for a minute before carrying on with their daily chores.
One hour east of Brussels, in the undulating green fields of Limburg province, it was a different story.
There were plenty of real working-class people drinking Trappist ales and eating chips with mayonnaise, but there were not many Moroccan or Turkish faces to be seen.
Given that this was the May Day rally of the far-right "Vlaams Blok" party, it was hardly a surprise. The Flemish nationalist grouping, whose slogan is "Our Own People First," have made a name for themselves by demonizing poor immigrants in wealthy Flemish cities like Antwerp, Gent and Bruges.
It is a tactic that has paid off. A quarter of a century ago, when the party was founded, it gained less than 2 percent of the vote in Flanders. At the last elections it received over 15 percent and polls predict it is set to up this by two or three percentage points in the May 18 poll.
After the Vlaams Blok won a third of the votes in Antwerp's local elections two years ago, Belgium's traditional put the Vlaams Blok in political quarantine and the mainstream media refuse to touch the party with a bargepole.
But is the party really that dangerous?
The Vlaams Blok certainly has a penchant for neo-fascist political choreography. Against a backdrop of good, honest folk doing heroic stunts (in this case bungy-jumping from a crane,) the party faithful waved flags bearing the Flemish lion and the group's orange insignia.
Then, to a distinctly Wagnerian soundtrack, the local party boss --- Bert Schoofs --- warmed up the crowd by haranguing the Walloons, immigrants and the "Visa Card parties" of the center before describing Verhofsatdt's government as the "most un-Flemish, left-wing an undemocratic administration since World War Two."
The crowd, most of whom looked like extras in a Bruegel painting, went wild --- and went even wilder when a beautiful teenage TV star pledged her support for the group on stage.
When the clapping had stopped and the rain eased off, I asked the party's leading light, Filip Dewinter, how he felt when critics accused him of being a racist or a fascist.
After recounting how his father was jailed for opposing the Nazis, the suave 40-year-old father of three says: "I don't have any sympathy for National Socialism, racism or neo-fascism, but we are a right-wing Flemish nationalist party with no complexes."
For the Vlaams Blok, this means tackling the sensitive issue of multiculturalism head-on.
"There should be a stop to mass immigration from third world countries," says Dewinter over beer and cheese sandwiches. "For the immigrants who are already here, there is a clear choice: either they have to assimilate or they have to go back to their own countries."
Some of the Blok's policies might be distasteful, but at least the party does not duck issues -- like crime and immigration -- that are at the top of ordinary working people's concerns. The Socialists, on the other hand, appear to have all the right -- or at least right-on -- answers, but one can't help wondering whether they are asking the wrong questions.
On May 18, Belgian voters will have to decide whether to stick with one of the mainstream parties of the center left and right or plump for fringe groupings like the Vlaams Blok. For many of those who have not benefited from Belgium's recent years of growth, the choice may not be as obvious as it first appears.