Flemish nationalism has not risen, it has transformed

For much of the international press, the local elections in Belgium this weekend were about the rise of separatism. The Washington Post reported already the day before the elections: “As the EU basks in Peace Prize glory, separatists from Belgium to Spain are on the march” (not that nationalists are never “on the rise,” but “on the march”). And like virtually all other media, the Huffington Post summarize the local elections as follows: “Big separatist gains in local Belgian elections.” But rather than the rise of Flemish separatism, the local elections were about the transformation of Flemish nationalism.

As is usual in Belgian local elections, the prime focus of all media was on Antwerp, the main city of the Dutch-speaking northern part of the country (Flanders), and the second biggest port in Europe. It is here that the leader of the Flemish nationalist party -New Flemish Alliance (N-VA)- Bart De Wever, was contesting the elections, in the hope to become the city’s first elected non-socialist mayor in postwar history.

In the past decade, De Wever has taken Flanders, and Belgium, by storm. Raised in a strong Flemish nationalist family, he became the N-VA leader in 2004. The party had been founded just three years earlier, as the successor of the People’s Union (VU), the major Flemish nationalist party of the postwar period. Haunted by internal strife for decades, the VU had moved to the left in the 1970s, which led to a split from the radical right, which formed the Flemish Bloc (which was later renamed Flemish Interest, VB). The remaining VU were internally divided between democratic but conservative nationalists, and progressive regionalists. In 2001, the former split off, under Geert Bourgeois, and founded the N-VA – the latter continued as SPIRIT, which later dissolved in the social democratic SP.a.

The N-VA failed miserably in the 2003 federal elections, with only Bourgeois getting a seat in the lower chamber (the party got no representative in the Senate). It is at this point that De Wever takes over from Bourgeois and develops the subcultural N-VA, which had needed an electoral alliance with the Christian democratic CD&V to survive the 2004 elections, into, in his own words, “a Flemish people’s party.” Combining an explicit and proud conservative nationalism with a modern and omnipresent media appearance, De Wever became the newest flavor in Belgian media and politics – which had lost most of their main characters in the late 1990s.

On Sunday De Wever realized his lifetime ambition, to become the mayor of ‘his’ city. The N-VA won 38% of the vote, decimating the City List of the social democratic SP.a and Christian democratic CD&V (28.6%), but most importantly the populist radical right VB, which dropped from 33.5 to 10.2%! While coalition negotiations will not be easy, there is little doubt that De Wever will be the next mayor of Antwerp, most probably in coalition with the City List. But what does this all mean for Antwerp, Flanders, and Belgium?

For Antwerp, this election was not about the success of Flemish nationalism, but the end of the populist radical right VB and two-bloc polarization. The populist radical right had dominated Antwerp politics since its breakthrough in 1988, when it got 17.7%. In response to this ‘black Sunday,’ as the election day would forever be known (even though many other black Sundays would follow), the other political parties established a cordon sanitaire, an agreement not to establish political coalition with the VB. The cordon has held to this day, despite a little glitch at the beginning. With the VB increasing its electorate to over 30%, and becoming the largest party in the city, the cordon sanitaire transformed Antwerp politics from multiparty to two-party, i.e. the ‘democratic party’ against the populist radical right VB.

In the 2006, local elections social democratic mayor Patrick Janssens ran a successful campaign as the (only) ‘democratic candidate’ against the ‘anti-democratic’ VB. While the other coalition parties ran independently, many of their voters chose Janssens in an attempt to “take the city back from the VB.” Although the VB actually increased its score, from 33.0% to 33.5%, it lost the title of largest party of Antwerp to the SP.a of Janssens, which gained 35.5%. The media unanimously declared the Antwerp elections as a defeat of the VB and within weeks the party bought into the narrative. In the following years the VB slowly but steadily disintegrated. Long simmering personal struggles came to the fore and prominent members either left voluntarily (e.g. former chairman Franck Vanhecke) or were kicked out (e.g. former Brussels police chief Bart Debie). The VB -the party with the longest winning streak in recent Belgian history- has been losing elections ever since.

With the VB no longer a major threat, Janssens’ two-party strategy lost its appeal and De Wever saw his chance to realize his boyhood dream. Moreover, as the elections were no longer about the VB and its issues, the N-VA no longer ran the risk of being accused of being a ‘VB light.’ This not withstanding, the election campaign was unexpectedly harsh, particularly given that Dewever’s party had been a member of the city coalition under Janssens in the past six years. Finally, Antwerp politics had returned to a multiparty system.

But despite the massive changes in seats, the Antwerp elections do not show that much change in terms of broader ideology. The SP.a-CD&V City List lost, but mostly the non-SP.a and CD&V voters who had only supported Janssens to fight back the VB. In addition, the SP.a provided most of the new electorate of the radical left PvdA+, the real surprise winner with 8.0% of the vote (+6.1%). The N-VA got most of its voters from the VB, which lost a staggering 23.3%. Given that the VB is also a dogmatic Flemish nationalist party, the rise of “Flemish nationalism” was rather minimal – the 2012 N-VA results is just 4% higher than the 2006 VB result! In fact, in 2006 N-VA and VB together won roughly 44.6% (although N-VA was in cartel with CD&V), while the total score of the two in 2012 was 47.9%.

This is not to say that Antwerp politics will not change. First and foremost, the N-VA is not confronted with a cordon sanitaire, like the VB, and will thus be able to govern the city (albeit in coalition with non-separatists).  Moreover, they will be able to draw upon support from the Flemish government, in which the N-VA is a major player. Together, these levels will further frustrate the collaboration with the federal government, in which Dutch and French speaking parties govern in parity, but without the N-VA.

In conclusion, the local elections in Flanders were not so much about the rise of Flemish nationalism, but about the transformation of Flemish nationalism. While the VB is not dead yet, as VB chairman Bruno Valkeniers declared with little pathos last night, the party is (for the moment) no longer relevant in Flemish politics. This also means that Flemish nationalism is now squarely back in the conservative, but liberal democratic, camp. Paradoxically, this makes it actually more threatening to the Belgian state. Because while radical right Flemish nationalism could be contained by a cordon sanitaire, conservative Flemish nationalism cannot.

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