Belgium’s status quo to be tested following far-right surge in elections

Europe Letter: Vlaams Belang’s success raises questions on government formation

Belgium’s King Philippe has started the rounds again, party by party, to broker what will inevitably be a most peculiar new governing coalition. If even that is possible.

A clear vote of no confidence in prime minister Charles Michel's outgoing government coalition in the weekend's triple election – regional, national and European – has again raised the prospect of Belgium breaking new records for surviving without a government. Its current 541-day record in 2010-11 has been surpassed in the democratic world only by the Northern Ireland Assembly (now suspended for 28 months).

The constitutional challenge for the king, rather like that in Northern Ireland, is to get parties representing both of the country’s major linguistic communities, Flemish and Walloon, to collaborate in a coalition that can command a parliamentary majority. Michel’s own ability to do so had vanished some months ago and he was already a caretaker prime minister.

But the elections have produced another shock to the system. Wallonia, already more inclined to the left, went further left, with big gains for the Francophone Greens (Ecolo), notably in Brussels, and the hard-left PTB. And it saw a continued decline of the traditional mainstream parties, the liberal Reformist Movement, the Socialist Party (PS) and the Christian Social Party (CSP) – cumulatively down from 70 per cent in the 1990s to 45 per cent today.


But Flanders moved sharply to the right.

The hard-right, anti-immigrant, Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Belang (VB), with roots in fascism and international links to both Matteo Salvini's League in Italy and Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National in France, has made strong gains in the north of the country. It has taken 18 seats in the 150-seat federal parliament, up from three.

Surge in votes

In the Flemish region, the party jumps to 23 seats from six, taking 18.5 per cent of the votes, a whopping 12.6-point surge on the last triple elections in 2014. The new Belgian federal parliament will possibly "never have been so massively Flemish nationalist", boasts party leader Tom Van Grieken.

VB shares the commitment of conservative Flemish nationalists the N-VA, still the largest party, to split the country along linguistic lines, and will certainly back the latter’s demand for devolution of extra powers to the Flemish parliament as the price of sharing power.

To date VB, like its predecessor Vlaams Blok, has been excluded from such deals by the continued determination of the other parties to maintain a "cordon sanitaire" against the inclusion of the anti-democratic far-right in government. And most of the Francophone parties take a similar view on collaborating with the N-VA because of its secessionist politics.

Whether it will be possible to sustain that position, particularly in the Flanders regional government, is as yet unclear.

The political climate in Europe has changed on the issue. While the elevation to government in the 1990s of Joerg Haider's Freedom Party (FPO) in Austria provoked protests and international boycotts from EU partners, now such collaboration with the far-right has become commonplace.

Italy is led by a party which shares much with VB. Austria, albeit temporarily, readmitted the FPO to government, Estonia now includes a similar party, EKRE, in the governing coalition, while in Finland the Finns Party are bidding to be included in government for a second time.

Shared characteristics

Hungary and Poland are also led by governments which share similar anti-immigrant and populist characteristics.

In a speech on Sunday, N-VA leader Bart De Wever did not exclude the possibility of breaking the embargo around Vlaams Belang.

“I never subscribed to the ‘cordon sanitaire’ and I was never a fan of it. But I have never been a fan of the party’s style, of some of its exaggerated figures and positions. These two things, which were clear yesterday, are still clear,” he said.

At federal level the Francophone parties will not share that perspective and will also not want to touch the N-VA – the alternative is probably a complicated and unstable governing coalition with the plethora of smaller non-N-VA and non-VB parties, with the N-VA, still the largest party in parliament, going into opposition.

And the reason for VB’s remarkable success? Not just the alienation of voters throughout Europe, but its ability, like the Brexit Party in the UK, to harness that alienation through a skilful social media campaign that has left the other Belgian parties in the shade.

Vlaams Belang's expenditure on social media was double that of the N-VA, and it spent nearly as much on Facebook and Google as all of the other Flemish parties combined.

The man behind that online campaign, Bart Claes, boasted to Politico simply that "this is the scroll generation. People have an attention span of one, maybe two seconds. Within that time a message has to be clear, and that's easier for a party with clear positions than it is for parties in the [political] centre."

There’s no doubt the VB has “clear” positions. They are also vile.