The Bart De Wever who appeared on television for his victory acceptance speech today looked like a well-tailored, lean and mean member of the elite rather than some slouchy, overfed and lower class meatball. His opponents would be well advised to treat him with the utmost seriousness. Read on…
New Flemish Alliance Electoral Victory: Belgium’s Inexorable Slide into Dissolution
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
The morning after Belgium’s communal elections of 14 October, both local and European media highlighted the strong showing of the nationalist and secessionist New Flemish Alliance party (N-VA), whose leader, Bart De Wever, claimed victory in the key race for control of Antwerp, where the Socialist Party has ruled almost without interruption for 60 years. More generally the N-VA took 37% of the vote in Flanders, consolidating its position as the single largest party in the Region.
Television coverage of De Wever’s victory speech focused on his well chosen sound bite challenge to the federal government in which he called upon Prime Minister Elio di Rupo to face up to his responsibilities and open talks for a shift to the Confederalist State in which Flemish aspirations for self-government, for control of its finances and of its destiny would be properly accommodated. Otherwise the speech was notable for its calm self-assurance and seeming generosity towards the vanquished, thanking the outgoing Socialist Burgomaster for his years of service to the municipality and extending a hand of friendship to those who had opposed the N-VA at the polls. Newspaper pundits expressed their expectation that the N-VA leadership will now begin negotiations with the Socialists, who won 30% of the votes, to form a coalition government, as is the Belgian tradition.
The outward moderation of De Wever’s speech matched his new, very ‘presidential’ look. Over the summer, the N-VA chief shed 40 kg. Belgian tabloids had speculated on which substance he had used to achieve the turnaround. However that may be, the Bart De Wever who appeared on television today looked like a well-tailored, lean and mean member of the elite rather than some slouchy, overfed and lower class meatball. His opponents would be well advised to treat him with the utmost seriousness.
And yet the mediatized response to De Wever’s challenge by the Prime Minister was precisely lame and unserious. Di Rupo insisted that the communal elections have nothing to do with the federal government, which would face its judgment day on a different playing field, the legislative elections of 2014.
In point of fact, both De Wever and Di Rupo were prevaricating. In the case of De Wever, the offer of Confederalism, which sounds moderate, earnest and patriotic (in the sense that it would keep the fiction of a Kingdom of Belgium alive) is raised in the full knowledge that such negotiations can only end in check-mate, bringing to the fore, here and now, the issue of secession. De Wever knows full well that Confederalism is inapplicable to the Belgian situation. This is so given the irreconcilable claims of two peoples to the same territory, namely, Brussels, which is 95% occupied by French speakers and which is the economic locomotive of the country. The reduction of federal Belgium with its 3 regions and 2 dominant language communities into a confederation of two peoples is possible only if Brussels joins Wallonia, which Flemings viscerally reject. The very complexity which confederalism would sweep aside had been devised and evolved to keep those contradictory claims at bay.
For his part, in his sound bite insistence that communal elections have nothing to do with the fate of the federal state Di Rupo was denying the obvious. In this way, he positioned himself exactly where the Flemish nationalists have said the French-speaking elites were all along: in denial of the present and future realities, out of touch and ripe to be overthrown in a radical solution. If he had summoned up just a bit of courage and feistiness, if he had moved a little from the complacency of his office to face up to the political forces in Flanders which the elections had just given new momentum, then Di Rupo would have accepted the challenge to talk about Confederalism and would have called De Wever’s bluff. However, to do that would have meant surrendering his bow-tie and the stuffed shirt mentality that goes with it. Di Rupo did neither. And the country will be the poorer for it.
Considering the party platform of the N-VA, its affinity for the Anglo-Saxon economic model and repugnance at Continental, read Socialist, patterns, there is considerable irony in the prospect of Bart De Wever’s formation of a coalition of parties, likely in partnership with the Socialists, to govern Antwerp. In effect, this pending reality vitiates the driving logic of separatism, namely the notion that a self-standing Flanders will do better than it has in the tight embrace of a muddled and failing Socialist Party-dominated Wallonia. For Flanders to succeed in changing its economic model and governance, it will have to throw off a lot more than just the Francophone neighbors. The entire political system will have to be changed from what is now proportional representation to first past the gate.
The Flanders we know today is internally as muscle-bound and incapable of solving deep-set structural problems in the economy as is the federal government of the Kingdom of Belgium. And this is due to what may be an excess of democracy and protection of minority views. The question is what will replace such democracy if the N-VA ultimately has its way.
Post Script. 18 October:
In closing, it pays to mention a key fact about the electoral results in Flanders which somehow was passed over in silence while Belgian journalists and political scientists poured over the returns.
I note, for example, that in the more than 6 full page articles which the mainstream Brussels daily ‘Le Soir’ devoted to the elections in its 17 October edition, we get the two sets of figures I cite below, but they are given in separate reports, without any connection.
On the one hand, ‘Le Soir’ tells us about the N-VA’s 37% showing, about the more than 1.1 million votes it captured, which is far and away greater than the traditional Flemish ruling party (CD&V) garnered. Indeed this time around, the N-VA on its own won as many votes as the amalgamated CD&V/N-VA had won in the last communal elections, in 2006 when they went to the polls hand in hand.
On the other hand, we are told that the N-VA has achieved what the Flemish liberals (namely PM Guy Verhofstadt and his Open VLD) could not do: they crushed the extreme right-wing politicians in Flanders. On 14 October, the Vlaams Belang lost out heavily as its voters moved over to support the N-VA. And yet, VB still won 10% of the Flemish votes.
The simple bit of arithmetic which anyone interested in the big picture would presumably do but which, in the event, no one has bothered to set out in public space is: 37% + 10% = 47%. Thus, we arrive at the fairly amazing fact that very close to half of the Flemish electorate is voting for secessionist parties.
And the inevitability of their getting their way is all the more assured by the heads-in-the-sand position adopted by the putative defenders of the Belgian state.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2012
G. Doctorow will be a panelist in the Round Table entitled "Is There a Future for Belgian Federalism?" at the World Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities, Columbia University, New York City on 18 April 2013.