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Belgian far right makes big gains in local elections

Stephen Castle
Monday 09 October 2006 00:00 BST

Belgium's far-right Vlaams Belang has become the latest populist European party to make significant electoral gains. The anti-immigration Flemish separatist party won a host of seats in regional elections yesterday.

As results came in, Frank Vanhecke, the party's chairman, described the vote as a "landslide" and added: "There is no way to disregard this victory."

Early results showed the party had gained 5.6 percentage points to reach 20.6 per cent in the 308 municipal councils across Flanders, the northern Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, and surged beyond its traditional stronghold in Antwerp.

However in Antwerp itself, Belgium's second largest city, the party appeared to be simply treading water, winning the same one third of the vote that it captured in the last regional elections. That made it far from clear that the Vlaams Belang, which means Flemish Interest, had made enough progress to force other parties to allow it to share power.

Nevertheless its continued progress is the latest example of success by populist right-wing parties which have prospered in Slovakia, Poland, Germany and France.

Led by Filip Dewinter, a former journalist, the Vlaams Belang has become the biggest electoral force in Flanders.

Its success has been achieved by advocating a mixture of populist policies including strict limits on immigration and the return of economic migrants who fail to integrate. Vlaams Belang also promotes independence for Flanders, complaining that the country's Dutch speakers subsidise the poorer Francophones from Wallonia.

The far-right party has also benefited from being the focus of opposition politics in Belgium. Six years ago the Vlaams Blok, which was the forerunner of the Vlaams Belang, won one third of the vote in Antwerp, but was kept out of power under an agreement among the mainstream political parties. That deal, the so-called cordon sanitaire, remains under strain.

Before the final count, Mr Dewinter stepped up pressure for political rivals to share power with him. He argued: "In a normal democracy, a party that sees its support increase from zero to more than 33 per cent over 24 years should be part of a governing coalition."

The Vlaams Blok was disbanded after a court ruled that it incited racial hatred. In regional elections two years ago the Vlaams Belang, which has most of the same personalities, polled 24 per cent.

The success of the far-right party ­ which has appealed to Jewish voters to become allies against Islamic fundamentalism ­ has polarised Belgium.Some 40,000 people attended pre-election pop concerts in Antwerp to rally voters against racism and intolerance.

As the campaigning drew to a close Mr Dewinter used a TV debate to claim that crime in Antwerp had risen by 10 per cent since the ruling, Socialist-led coalition took power in 1994. That was disputed by the city's mayor, Patrick Janssens, who said crime had gone down 16 per cent since 2000.

Some 7 million Belgians were obliged by law to vote in the municipal and provincial elections. In Flanders, 4.5 million people were due to go to the polls to elect 8,000 representatives from around 35,000 candidates.

Overall exit polls and early results spelt bad new for the Liberal-Socialist coalition led by the Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, who faces national elections next year. Mr Verhofstadt's Dutch-speaking Liberal Democrats were the biggest victims of the gains made by the Vlaams Belang in Flanders. But they also lost ground to the Christian Democrats.Mr Verhofstadt said: " We must acknowledge that the government has had a few bad months and we know that whoever leads faces the most fire."

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