The politics of Antwerp turns right

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With secessionism being the ‘in’ thing to do from Spain to Scotland, the Flemish Belgians were obviously buoyed by the success of the high-profile demonstrations in Catalonia and the upcoming vote in which the Scots get to choose independence from the UK (or not). On October 14, Bart De Wever, a moderate right-winger, was voted in as mayor of Antwerp – a move in which he not only fulfilled a lifelong dream but one in which he may well have changed the face of Belgian politics altogether.

Whichever side of the political fence you sit regarding the union of Wallonia and Flanders, De Wever’s achievement is something of a political success story. His party, the N-VA (Niewe-Vlaams Alliantie/ New Flemish Alliance) was formed in 2001 following a split in the old People’s Union (Volksunitie or VU). The 2003 federal elections saw a disastrous start to the new political party’s campaign, with 5% of the vote (the electoral majority) failing to be reached anywhere except West Flanders, they had government funding withdrawn and were adrift with only one representative to speak for them in government affairs. Following a successful election cartel with the CD&V (Christian Democrat & Flemish) party in 2004, they bounced back and have spent the years since garnering more and more of the Flemish vote. 

Although the policies of the N-VA may seem to conflict sometimes with the traditional notion of a right-wing party – their stance on ecology and climate change for one – it’s the nationalist element that defines them as a presence in Belgian politics. The other thing that affects their vote-winning run of success is that they are nothing at all like the far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party. even if the N-VA does things that appear to be designed to irritate, such as refusing to deal in governmental or federal business in any other language than Dutch, their eclectic mix of policies and an insistence that Flanders not only becomes a state in its own right but a part of a united Europe makes it a far more sane choice for some voters than the Eurosceptic, send-them-all back rhetoric of the VB.

All this new-found popularity comes at a price and De Wever has made strident efforts to distance himself from not only the VB but also his own skeletons that have returned time and again to haunt him. He attended a conference held by French right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen and the funeral of the holocaust denier and founder of the Vlaams Nationale Partij (later to become the VB) Karel Dillen but what was perhaps his biggest gaffe was what he said about the people of the city he now represents. In WWII more than 1,000 Jews resident in Antwerp were rounded up by police and civil servants complicit with the Nazis and sent to the concentration camps. In 2007 the mayor of Antwerp, the Socialist Patrick Janssens, offered an apology for the treatment of the Jews during the war, a sentiment De Wever dismissed as “a gratuitous act” adding that “those who led Antwerp at the time had to make delicate decisions in difficult circumstances.” He may have lost 60 kilos but no change in his physical appearance can alter history.

With mayoral control wrested from Patrick Janssens who served Antwerp for nine years, and the VB still marginalized by the other parties refusing to form any kind of coalition with them, the future looks bright for the N-VA. It also could mean a sea change in the way the nationalist agenda is viewed. Other Flemish parties now can’t risk being too populist and trying to steal votes from the N-VA by pushing an agenda that’s too nationalist without wrecking the foothold they have in prime minister Di Rupo’s coalition cabinet.

De Wever sees his comfortable victory as a springboard to propel him and his party into the Flemish elections in 2014. If the results are as good then as they were several weeks ago, it would mark the beginning of an earnest campaign to gain independence for Flanders. Lex Moolenaar, political analyst for the Gazet Van Antwerpen, reckons a convincing victory in the Flemish elections could be a turning point in the shape of Belgium as we know it today. Speaking to the Financial Times, he said: “It would enlarge N-VA’s power at the regional and national level… the next natural step would be towards seeking the independence of Flanders.”

The new mayor of Antwerp has a charismatic personality, the weight of the Flemish people behind him and is presenting a real alternative to the extremist views of the VB. To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, De Wever is speaking softly – and the big stick he’s carrying is the future of Belgium.