Belgium's far-right Vlaams Blok party made big gains and won a record number of protest votes in a national election yesterday which appeared to have been won by the ruling coalition of Liberals and Socialists.
The anti-immigration Flemish separatist Vlaams Blok increased its showing in its strongholds and won almost one in five votes in Flanders, but seemed to have failed to become the third biggest party there by a narrow margin.
The shape of the new coalition government will be determined in negotiations over the coming weeks but the outgoing Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, who leads the centre-right Flemish Liberal party, claimed victory last night.
Mr Verhofstadt, whose party had been neck-and-neck with the Flemish Christian Democrats, led by Stefaan De Clerck, was hoping to retain power with his rainbow coalition, which included the Greens and Socialists. Support for the Greens slumped disastrously, according to yesterday's early results, but both the Liberals and the Socialists made gains.
"This is a fantastic result," Mr Verhofstadt said, adding the coalition was ready to pursue his programme of economic reforms and tax cuts. "The government emerges stronger from these election results."
According to estimates for Flemish television, Mr Verhofstadt's Liberals were heading for 23.5 per cent of the vote in Flanders, with the Christian Democrats at 21.5 per cent, the Socialists at 21 per cent and the Vlaams Blok at 19.5 per cent.
There was no question of the Blok winning a place in government because mainstream parties refuse to work with the right-wing populists.
But much attention focused on the performance of the far-right, which has shown itself to be a growing force in Belgian politics. Under the slogan "Our own people first", the Blok wants to close borders, deport criminals and illegal immigrants and use cash inducements to persuade those legally in Belgium to "return home".
The Blok's leading light, Filip Dewinter, admitted even before the polls had closed that "the chances that we will make it into government are very small." Nevertheless, the party, which won 15.4 per cent of the vote in 1999, increased its percentage significantly. Its strong performance at the polls could place a question mark over the "cordon sanitaire" constructed by Belgium's political elite to exclude the Blok.
Mr Dewinter has exploited his position in opposition to take advantage of government failings and a recent expenses scandal which provoked the resignation of the city council in Antwerp. During the campaign, the party sought to boost its voter appeal by enlisting a former beauty queen, Anke Vandermeersch, as a Senate candidate. Some critics argue that only by allowing the far-right a share of power will voters come to realise that its policies are unworkable.