Antwerp's Blok vote

A big city with economic problems and simmering social resentments. A y oung, charismatic leader. A recipe for right-wing extremism, and it's winning v otes. Jeremy Langdon reports `The Vlaams Blok is saying what a lot of people in this city are thinking' `The Jewish population have woken up. They are very wary'

A smoky back-room in Antwerp's Van Maerlanstraat. The shutter door is pulled closed. A smart jacket-and-tie-clad speaker addresses an audience of around 40. He speaks fluently in low, measured tones, gesticulating to emphasise certain points. Mem bers ofthe audience listen attentively, lighting cigarettes and mumbling occasionally before applauding.

Filip Dewinter, aged 32, the leader of the right-wing Vlaams Blok (Flemish Nationalist Party), is addressing supporters about events tomorrow, when 18 Vlaams Blok members will take their seats on Antwerp's city council of 55 members.

These 18 have campaigned on a platform of migrant repatriation, and special schools to "refamiliarise non-Europeans with their own cultures". They want to end asylum for political refugees, and fly home illegal Belgian immigrants en masse in chartered freighter aircraft.

Antwerp is the 1993 European City of Culture, and Europe's second biggest port. It appears affluent; designer clothes, gems and prostitutes fill the windows of a city notable mainly for its ships, diamonds and beer.

Notable also are last October's Antwerp council elections. Led by Dewinter, the Vlaams Blok took 28 per cent of the vote, a rise of 10 percentage points. Dewinter himself received 29,000 votes, ten thousand more than his nearest challenger, the former socialist mayor Bob Cools.

Though there were gains in other Belgian cities, such as Mechelen and Ghent, nowhere was support as high as in Antwerp. With parliamentary elections looming later this year, Filip Dewinter and the Vlaams Blok are on the up.

From his activities as a right-wing student rabble-rouser in the city in the early Eighties, Dewinter appears to have made extremism electorally palatable to the voters of Antwerp.

In careful but easy English, he acknowledges that the anti-immigration platform was a vote-winner in October. He also stresses that the immigration stance is part of a wider radical agenda that embraces a separatist Flemish state, tough law-and-order reforms and measures to outlaw abortion.

"The Vlaams Blok is a political party which is saying openly what a lot of people are thinking in this city and in this country about the real problems of immigration, insecurity, drugs, and unemployment," Dewinter says.

"We represent a solution which is wanted by the people of Antwerp and the country. Our programme is much larger than immigration. I don't think that 30 per cent of Antwerp voters would vote for a party just talking about immigration."

But it is the race question that is causing most controversy, though in a city of half a million people there are only 20,000 Jews and 30,000 Moroccans and Turks.

Dewinter, however, claims that Antwerp's non-European population is closer to 60,000. He claims half are illegal.

"We think that immigration should he stopped and we also think there should be a solution for the non-European immigrants. Unemployed non-European immigrants and illegal non-European immigrants and political refugees should be sent back."

Dewinter himself has been linked to racial violence. Last June, eyewitness reports put him at the scene of an attack on a group of Turkish youths at Mol, close to the Dutch border. The Turks had refused to help put up Vlaams Blok posters and were set upon by a mob. Dewinter is even alleged to have been involved in a fight with a native Flemish boy in central Antwerp for not accepting a Vlaams Blok leaflet.

Dewinter denies this. "There was one incident," he says. "The only thing that happened was that our campaign bus was attacked by left-wing militants and we defended ourselves."

The Vlaams Blok puts Flemish nationalism high on its agenda. It stands against the "Frenchification" of Flanders and Brussels, and wants the latter to be the capital of a new Flemish state. As the party's orange booklet declares: "Europe should consider the fact that soon there will no longer be a Belgian state."

Recession appears to have been the catalyst driving the rise of the Vlaams Blok from the obscurity that followed its formation in 1979. Despite the prosperity of a port that handles more cargo than any other European port apart from Rotterdam, many referto "insecurity" prevailing in a city that has been run by socialists since 1927. Officially unemployment is running at about 8 per cent and rising, partly due to the loss of traditional jobs in the port. The city now has 2,500 homeless people.

"We were fed up," explains Pedro Delarue, a hospital worker who voted for Vlaams Blok last October. "The city was not doing anything for the people of Antwerp while Moroccans and Turks were being given council flats."

Housing provision, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.

"People are worse off, salaries are dropping, cuts have been made in social services and unemployment is much higher than the official average," says Erik Van Obberghen, Antwerp spokesman for Objektief 479.917, a Belgian anti-racist movement named after the number who voted for far-right parties in Belgium's parliamentary elections of 1991.

Objektief 479.917 advocates the vote for Belgian immigrants and full nationality after five years' residence. A nationwide petition in support of these demands recently realised 950,000 signatures.

"There is frustration with unemployment and low income, even though this is a safe city," says Antwerp community police spokesman Luc Lamine.

Lamine adds that there are only minor problems with racial violence in Antwerp, partly because a special police unit of eight officers has been established to liaise with the city's Turkish and Moroccan communities. Yet in the suburbs there is a feeling of suspicion in those communities, as Abied Alsulaiman, Antwerp Migrant Council co-ordinator, acknowledges.

Alsulaiman, a Syrian, claims that the Vlaams Blok is keeping its "image clean" while it tries to establish electoral credibility, and says immigrants are being made scapegoats for wider social ills.

"My wife is Flemish," Alsulaiman says, "and her friends who voted Vlaams Blok are good people. They voted for Dewinter mainly because they felt the socialists should go. There is no confidence here between the citizens and the politicians."

Andre Gantman, a Jewish lawyer, leads the Antwerp liberals, who have formed a four-party alliance with local Greens, Christian Democrats and Socialists to counter the Vlaams Blok on the council. He says: "The fact that the Vlaams Blok reached such a peakin October showed there are real problems in Antwerp. But l'm sure that only a very small minority of the 80,000 people who voted Vlaams Blok are racists."

Nevertheless, Gantman says that there is growing Jewish unease despite the absence of anti-Semitism from public Vlaams Blok rhetoric. "Before the October elections the Vlaams Blok were regarded as an extreme splinter group, but on October 9 the Jewish population woke up. They are now very wary."

Jewish caution has been symbolised by the election to the Antwerp city council of a 74-year-old woman who spends her time lecturing schoolchildren on the danger of fascism. Regine Beer was sent to Auschwitz in May 1944, having been interned by the Antwerp Gestapo and Flemish SS. She survived - just. Somewhat reluctantly, she has now been hailed as an "anti-fascist symbol".

"For many years the Jewish people here have not understood the dangers of the Vlaams Blok. Now they understand. I have met Dewinter once already and I see similarities between the Vlaams Blok and the Nazis before the war. I have seen it all before."

This kind of comparison is impatiently rejected by Dewinter. On the eve of tomorrow's council session he is reason itself.

"We are not racist at all but a right-wing Flemish nationalist party. When I hear the words `far right', I think about skinheads and all that kind of scum. We don't have anything to do with these kind of people. Nothing at all."

Dewinter nods thoughtfully. He sounds as respectable as he looks.

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