Nothing is beneath the dignity of our attention, so even the municipal elections of Belgium, last Sunday 14 October 2012, can be deemed to have their importance. I cannot discuss every trend that came out of the results, but a few stand out.
On the Walloon side, little remarkable happened. All four established parties (Socialists, Liberals, Christian-Democrats secularized as “Humanists”, and Ecologists) held their own, the Socialists even strengthening their dominant position. Some personal issues are of some interest, e.g. how a coalition managed to oust the 20-year mayor of Molenbeek, Philippe Moureaux; this coalition was engineered by the Christian-Democrats in revenge for their own ousting from the coalition in the city of Brussels, where the Socialist mayor Freddy Thielemans strengthened his position.
On the Flemish side, however, something of a revolution took place. The papers were most vocal about the giant victory of the N-VA (“New-Flemish Alliance”). From a marginal alliance partner of the Christian-Democrats in one go to the status of biggest party of the country with more than a quarter of the vote in its own right, it is indeed impressive. Partly, this was a reaction of indignation by the electorate against the latest government formation, in which the classical parties sold out the Flemish nation’s rights badly. Partly, it was because the N-VA has placed itself on the map as a decent conservative party. But it remains to be seen whether they will live up to this new image: the party is as yet a bit inconsistent and ideologically amateurish. The rightward slant is at any rate undeniable: its rather leftist mayoral candidate in Ghent with a Socialist past, Siegfried Bracke, won comparatively little, whereas their candidates with a right-wing image or past, like Bruno Stevenheydens in Beveren, Karim Van Overmeire in Aalst and party president Bruno De Wever in Antwerp, won hugely.
Not that they can enjoy their newfound power in many places, for the traditional parties have mostly ganged up to keep the N-VA out of power, even if it is the biggest party. In the city of Halle, for instance, the mayoral candidate Mark Demesmaeker ended first but was unexpectedly bypassed by a coalition of the losers. But the N-VA knows how to play the same game: in Bilzen, MEP Frieda Brepoels will be the mayor, replacing her meritorious ex-party comrade (now Christian-Democrat), mayor Johan Sauwens. And in Kortrijk, N-VA supported the coup de théatre by Vincent van Quickenborne, who leaves his ministership in the central government to oust the sitting mayor, former minister De Clerck. For the first time in 150 years, Kortrijk will have a Liberal mayor instead of a Christian.
The Green Party gained somewhat, though a big progress in votes could not save their mayor Ingrid Pira of Mortsel, where yours truly happens to live; the N-VA was bigger there, as in most towns around Antwerp, where they will have a number of mayors. The far-left Partij van de Arbeid (“Labour Party”) put itself back on the map in Antwerp and a few other towns. The traditional parties all lost somewhat. The victories of the Socialists (at least seemingly, for the real winner was their Green alliance partner) in Ghent and of the Liberals in Tongeren and Mechelen are the opposite of the general picture. But the big loser was the Christian-Democratic Party CD&V.
In terms of votes, they held out fairly well, slightly better than the Socialists and Liberals. But given their deep implantation in Flemish society, their loss of ground is definitive and a major contrast to their past omnipresence. The decline of the Christian-Democratic party is another step in a long-term decline, combining the structural evolution of people becoming less religious and at any rate less Christian, with the conjunctural disappointment at the party’s selling out the rights of the Flemish people in the latest government formation. Its proverbially incompetent president Wouter Beke tried to put a brave face on his defeat, lying that his party was still the greatest at the municipal level. It is still the dominant party in some rural area, but with the loss of the cities of Aalst, Bruges and Kortrijk, it has very little power in the centres anymore.
This can be compared to that political family’s fortunes in the neighbouring countries. In the Netherlands, the CDA (“Christian-Democratic appeal”) was reduced in the last few years to one-third of its strength, marginalized into irrelevance from what till recently was the natural party of government which mostly furnished the Prime Minister. Its line was centre-left, its tradition and voters centre-right, and once they were presented with an alternative (including Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam party), they left the party in droves. The problem here, as in many parties, is that the voters have their private opinions at ease, while the public figures who sit in parliament are influenced by leftist fashions: either because they really believe these, or because they play to the gallery out of fear that centre-right opinions will be punished by the leftist opinion hegemons. In Italy, the Democrazia Cristiana, for decades in government and the natural partner of the Americans in containing the Communist threat, simply collapsed and disappeared. In Germany by contrast, the Christian-Democrats profiled themselves as a mildly but consistently conservative party, where Christians and secularized people feel equally at home, so that it survived the secularization of the population unharmed.
The other big news of these elections was the huge defeat of the Vlaams Belang (VB, “Flemish Interest”, formerly Vlaams Blok, “Flemish Bloc”), also a Flemish nationalist and resolutely separatist party, but known mostly for its anti-immigrant stance. Well, the party spokesmen will say they are not anti-immigrant per se, that they welcome people who are willing to throw in their lot with the natives and become Fleming with the Flemings. But they are perceived as so anti-immigrant that they are shunned by all other parties including the N-VA and kept locked in a cordon sanitaire, i.e. an agreement to boycott them. While increasing its share of the vote constantly, it never took part in exercising power at any level. All kinds of things were tried to counter its influence, including a trial which outlawed the party and forced it to refound itself.
Its presence became counterproductive, as the other parties felt compelled to take the opposite view or at any rate carry out the opposite policies. Thus, the Vlaams Belang was at its strongest around 2004, when the other parties agreed to the Fast-Belgian Act, the most liberal nationality law in the world. More restrictive immigration policies in the European countries have been enacted by the mainstream parties, and all the more so if they had no sizable anti-immigrant parties to define themselves against.
In the nineties, as the Vlaams Blok was going from strength to strength, Prof. Johan Leman, appointed as director of a government centre to combat “racism”, meaning this party, remarked that the answer to the Vlaams Blok was a decent centre-right party which could attract its voters. At the time, there was no such alternative. The parties which the left (and hence the media) likes to describe as centre-right, namely the Christian-Democrats, the Liberals and also the Volksunie (= an earlier incarnation of the N-VA), all rejected that label and pursued centre-left policies. So, they failed to attract VB voters. But now, the new leader of the N-VA, Bart De Wever, managed to give the party a centre-right image at last. He lauds Theodore Dalrymple and Roger Scruton, makes deals with David Cameron, and writes his own conservative column in a leading newspaper. So, his party at long last gave the electorate their decent centre-right alternative. This was just what the voters had been waiting for. Now they want the party to be true to its promises.