Belgium’s ‘Black Sunday’ sees far-right surge, threatens new government crisis

Vlaams Belang chairman Tom Van Grieken holds a speech at the Vlaams Belang Party in Londerzeel, Belgium, 26 May 2019. [EPA-EFE/JULIEN WARNAND]

Extreme-right Flemish separatist party Vlaams Belang gained big in Belgium’s triple elections on Sunday (26 May), complicating efforts to form the next federal government as French-speaking Walloons voted for radically opposite parties on the left of the political spectrum.

Belgium’s “Super Sunday” of elections was marked by a distinct shift to the extreme-right in the more prosperous Dutch-speaking Flanders region while voters in French-speaking Wallonia gave leftist parties a clear win.

This results in an ever more polarised parliament at federal level where each region has a pre-determined number of seats. With the exception of the Greens, this means the country’s linguistic divide is now also clearly doubled by a political divide.

In Flanders, the far-right Vlaams Belang scored more than 18.6% of the vote, a surge of close to 13% compared to 2014.

It becomes the second-biggest party behind the nationalist N-VA, which remains the largest party in Flanders with 24.8%, despite suffering big losses. Traditional parties like the Conservative CD&V (15.4%), the liberal Open VLD (13.1%), the Socialist SP.A (10.1%) and Groen (10.1%) follow at a distance.

In Wallonia, the Socialist PS suffered losses, but remains the strongest party in the region, with 26.2% of votes, followed by Prime Minister Charles Michel’s liberal MR party on 21.4%. Green party Ecolo is the big winner in the region, nearly tripling their score to 14.5%.

In Brussels, the Flemish and French-speaking Greens are jointly expected to become the largest political parties.

Despite the anticipated Green wave, the new Belgian federal parliament will possibly “never have been so massively Flemish-nationalist,” said Vlaams Belang leader, Tom Van Grieken. While the N-VA remains the largest party at national level, Vlaams Belang follows closely behind, jumping from three to eighteen seats in the federal assembly.

“This is not a black Sunday, but a Sunday full of hope. We want to assume our responsibility,” said Van Grieken in his victory speech in front of supporters after the results came in.

Vlaams Belang has so far been excluded from ruling coalitions at all levels of government in Belgium due to the so-called cordon sanitaire, which aims at excluding  the far-right from any political majority in the country.

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

“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 added.

The gulf between the two major linguistic communities in the country will make the formation of a new Belgian federal government extremely difficult, raising fears that Belgium might repeat the crisis seen after the 2010 election when the country remained 541 days without a government, a world record.

The election results suggest Prime Minister Charles Michel, who has been running the country of 11 million people in a caretaker capacity since December, could face many more months in that role as party leaders try to form a new coalition.

Although Michel’s MR party came second place in the elections in Wallonia, commentators suggest he could be out of a job soon as his outgoing government coalition partners faced considerable electoral losses.

The Flemish separatists are expected to double down on their efforts to delegate more powers to Belgium’s regions, a move resisted by the poorer Wallonia.

The government formation process could begin in the coming week, with King Philippe expected to hold exploratory talks with the leaders of the main political parties.

On a European level, the country swings even more to the right with the extreme-right Vlaams Belang winning three seats, at the expense of the Flemish nationalist N-VA and  the liberal Open VLD, which lost one seat each.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon and Sam Morgan]

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