Far right makes big advance in Belgium

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The Independent Online

The far right scored further successes in weekend elections in Belgium, winning one-third of the vote in Antwerp and challenging mainstream politicians to allow it to govern the city.

The far right scored further successes in weekend elections in Belgium, winning one-third of the vote in Antwerp and challenging mainstream politicians to allow it to govern the city.

The Vlaams Blok, whose manifesto includes plans to close mosques and end immigration to Belgium, backed its claim to be the second-biggest far-right party in Europe with victories in Flanders.

The result was called a "stain" by the Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, but it puts him in a difficult position. "None of the democratic parties will work with the Vlaams Blok, not now, not ever," he said.

The Vlaams Blok has been kept from national and municipal power in Belgium by a coalition of the other parties, which have formed a cordon sanitaire. But some politicians believe the tactic may backfire, fearing the example of Austria's far-right Freedom Party, which became a repository of opposition votes when isolated.

The Belgian result presents particular difficulties for the Foreign Minister, Louis Michel, who was prominent in the campaign to isolate Austria when the Freedom Party was admitted to government. Political sanctions against Austria by the other 14 European Union member states were withdrawn last month.

The episode seems to have encouraged the Vlaams Blok. There was an immediate demand for a role in Antwerp's government from the Blok's leader, Filip Dewinter, who carried an umbrella from the Austrian province of Carinthia - the base of Jörg Haider of the Freedom Party - on his way to the polling booth.

Mr Dewinter said: "I think the so-called democratic parties, if they are really democratic, have to step aside and offer the winning party the chance to govern this city." He is threatening to disruptAntwerp's city assembly if his party is not recognised. The Blok captured 20 of the 55 seats on the Antwerp council, up from 18. It emerged as the biggest party in Mechelen, with 25 per cent of the vote, and as the third largest in Ghent.

The party is fiercely nationalist and argues that French-speaking Wallonia is a drain on more prosperous Flanders. But the result was condemned on both sides of the linguistic divide. The headline in the French language daily, Le Soir, read "Antwerp remains the capital of hate". The Flemish paper Het Laatste Nieuws said: "The black oil spill is spreading from Antwerp in an ever wider circle around the city."

The results surprised politicians, partly because Antwerp, Belgium's second city, is a fashionable and cosmopolitan enclave of relative prosperity, and partly because a fall in the Vlaams Blok vote had been forecast.

Exit polls predicting a five-point drop in the Blok's 28 per cent share in the last municipal elections in Antwerp proved wrong. While many who voted for the party would not admit it,anecdotal evidence suggested it may even have gained support from some Jewish voters who welcome its hard line on crime and the growing Russian mafia menace.

Sunday's poll was the sixth in a row, dating back to 1988, in which the Vlaams Blok has confounded expectations.

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