A week is long in politics

18th October 2006, Comments 0 comments

Belgium has gone to the polls to elect thousands of local councillors. Martin Banks looks for pointers from the results of the poll to the country´s general election next year.

Belgium has gone to the polls to elect thousands of local councillors. Martin Banks looks for pointers from the results of the poll to the country´s general election next year.

Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt´s party has tried to put on a brave face after it suffered widespread losses in Belgium's first communal elections in six years.

But political pundits are predicting that, if the trends continue, it seems unlikely that the present government coalition of Liberals and Socialists will survive.

Unless Verhofstadt's Liberals stage a sharp recovery over the coming months, most expect the next administration to be a coalition from the Socialists and Christian Democrats.

Verhofstadt's post-election analysis said it all.

"We must acknowledge," said the bespectacled PM, "that the government has had a few bad months and we know that whoever leads faces the most fire."

His national government coalition partners, the French-speaking Socialists, also suffered losses in the French-language region, largely because of a string of corruption scandals, but did not suffer as badly as expected.

"People made a conclusion on the things that went on," said Elio di Rupo, Socialist leader and premier of Wallonia.

The political landscape in Belgium is complicated by the fact that each of the main political parties is split into two, with one section representing the Dutch-speaking Flemish community and the other the French-speaking Walloons.

A successful coalition must successfully balance the interests of both.
But if the local results are, indeed, a prelude to a change in national political leadership next year one thing is sure: whoever succeeds the boyish-looking Verhofstadt will come from the party that wins the largest number of seats in the Chamber of Representatives.

Among those celebrating most after the 8 October elections were the Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V), who regained first place in Flanders from the extreme right-wing Vlaams Belang (VB).

The Flemish Socialist Party (SP.A, which stands for the Dutch Socialistische Partij - Anders) also celebrated a degree of electoral success, not least in Antwerp, where Patrick Janssens, the incumbent mayor, unexpectedly gained an extra 16 percent of the votes.

In doing so, he eclipsed the very determined challenge of Filip Dewinter, leader of the VB which ran on an anti-immigrant platform. Janssens' victory came much to the delight of large sections of the Belgian media.

Despite predictions that this election would mark its big breakthrough, the VB has been kept in opposition in Antwerp by an unlikely rainbow coalition, whose only common cause is keeping the city of the hands of the far right.

For Flemish daily newspaper, Het Laatste Nieuws, Janssens had fulfilled the pledge he made six years ago when he told Dewinter, "I am your worst nightmare".

Some members of the Belgian media have spent the last week pondering on one particular question: Does this mean the end of the Vlaams Belang?

Peter Vander Meersch, writing in the Flemish daily newspaper De Standaard, said: "The VB clearly remains Flanders' third political group after the CD&V and SP.A but these election results may create great tension within the party.

"Does this mean that the many problems in society on which the VB has been hammering away these past years have disappeared? No, not at all.

"It would indeed be a sign of misplaced arrogance and immense stupidity if the traditional parties wallow in complacency.

"The lesson to be learnt from this election is, in the first place, an optimistic one. Not only in Antwerp, Ghent and Mechelen but also in cities such as Bruges, Leuven, Ostend and Hasselt, Flemish voters have rewarded sound government."

The Socialists had something of a mixed night, being forced to give up their absolute majority in the industrial city of Charleroi. They also lost seats in Namur, the capital of the region.


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