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Belgium 2012

Municipal and provincial elections were held in Belgium on October 14. All municipal councils, provincial councils but also district councils (in Antwerp) and OCMW/CPAS councils (social services) in some bilingual municipalities were up.

Belgium last held a federal election in June 2010, but it did not get a federal government until December 2011 (541 days after the original election). For the past few years, Belgium’s “existential crisis” had been deepening with Flanders drifting further and further away from Wallonia, with the question of the “breakup of Belgium” becoming increasingly relevant. The June 2010 federal elections just rendered turned the problem into a major political crisis. In Flanders, the right-wing nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) – which seeks the independence of Flanders – won over 28% of the vote and became the largest party both in Flanders and in the country as a whole. The N-VA’s dramatic entrance onto the Belgian political scene in 2010 was a political earthquake which had major repercussions. The various other parties were unable to reach an agreement to form a government, the main blockage points being a constitutional reform (entailing further devolution of power from the federal government) which most Flemish politicians demanded.

Finally, a new government was formed in December 2011, led by Elio Di Rupo, the leader of the Francophone Socialists (PS), with the participation of the Francophone and Flemish Socialist, Liberal and Catholic parties (PS, sp.a; MR, Open VLD; CD&V, cdH respectively). The parties had reached an agreement on economic/fiscal policy (spending cut and tax hikes – economic growth has slowed and the country’s debt is up to 99% of GDP) and constitutional reforms which includes splitting up the controversial BHV electoral district, replacing the elected Senate with an unelected one representing region sand communities  and devolving more powers (including employment) to the regions and communities. A few months in, the new government has faced some social unrest in the form of strikes and movements against some controversial austerity measures and a pension reform.

These municipal and provincial elections come six years after the last ones, a period in which Belgian – especially Flemish – politics have seen huge changes. The eruption of the N-VA in 2010 and its subsequent establishment as the hegemonic party in Flanders (it is polling in the mid to high-30s in Flanders, and the CD&V is seemingly locked in a death spiral) have obviously changed Flemish politics a whole lot. The far-right Vlaams Belang (VB), previously the dominant force of radical Flemish nationalism, has collapsed, collateral victim of the N-VA. The Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V), the dominant party in Flanders for most of the past century, has also been severely hit by the N-VA’s success. At the turn of the new century, the Flemish Christian Democrats had adopted a more nationalist tone and it had been somewhat successful in building up a nationalist/regionalist appeal. However, the N-VA has been siphoning off nationalist voters away from the CD&V.

These local elections were crucial for the N-VA to assert its new political hegemony, at all levels of government in Flanders. However, local elections follow a different dynamic. Rural Flanders is the powerbase of the CD&V and it still controls a lot of municipalites there, which have traditionally been the backbone and source of the party’s strength. The situation is further muddled by the dominance of local parties and coalitions of various sizes in a number of municipalities in Flanders (and Wallonia), including a large number of places where the CD&V and N-VA still rule together. These factors made these elections more challenging and slightly more difficult for the N-VA.

The major race in Flanders and in Belgium as a whole was in Antwerp. The largest city in Belgium, governed by the Socialists since 1944 (with the exception of a few months in 1976), had been in yesteryears the scene of high-profile battles between the Flemish Socialists (and their coalition partners, usually the Christian Democrats and Liberals) and the VB. In 2006, sp.a mayor Patrick Janssens (in power since 2003) managed to defeat the VB’s leader, Filip Dewinter. The VB’s result in 2006 – 20 seats and 33.5% (against 22 for the sp.a) – was seen, back then, as underwhelming and eventually precipitated the VB’s downfall.

This year, the contest opposed Bart de Wever, the leader of the N-VA, to mayor Patrick Janssens (sp.a). Bart de Wever’s decision to try to wrestle control of the country’s largest cith away from the sp.a and their allies (the CD&V and Open VLD) effectively nationalized the race. To counter the N-VA, Janssens’ sp.a formed a common list with the CD&V, which has been the sp.a’s main coalition partner in Antwerp in the past few decades. The result in Antwerp were as follows:

N-VA 37.73% winning 23 seats
sp.a-CD&V 28.58% winning 17 seats
VB 10.21% (-23.3%) winning 5 seats (-15)
PVDA+ 7.97% (+6.12%) winning 4 seats (+4)
Groen! 7.95% (+3.24%) winning 4 seats (+2)
Open VLD 5.54% (-4.16%) winning 2 seats (-3)

The result was an historic and significant victory which turned the night, regardless of the N-VA’s performance elsewhere, into a major success (and breakthrough) for the N-VA. With 37% of the vote, the N-VA ate up the majority of the VB’s old base (Filip Dewinter said that the VB had sown the seeds for this event and that the N-VA was the one who was reaping their fruits) but also made significant inroads with the electorate of the other parties, first and foremost the CD&V (in coalition with the N-VA in 2006, it had won 11.2%). This is the new state of affairs in Flanders: the N-VA has become what the VB was never able to become – the hegemonic party of Flemish nationalism which has attracted the support of more nationalist supporters of the other parties. This has hurt the CD&V, which had adopted a significant nationalist/regionalist/confederalist attitude in the past decade, the most; but it has not been without its effects on the Open VLD and the sp.a. For the Open VLD, justice minister Annemie Turtelboom (their top candidate) was unable to stop the bleeding. Only the Greens, for understandable reasons, have been spared by the N-VA’s irresistable rise to the top.

Bart de Wever will become mayor of Antwerp, most likely in coalition with the sp.a (though without Janssens, who reiterated that he would not serve in a coalition under de Wever, and will probably retire). He has not ruled out talking with the VB, but it is unlikely that he will form a coalition with them – too controversial (unlike the VB, the N-VA has a more respectable aura and it tries to maintain this) and probably too unstable. Bart de Wever has pledged, I believe, to serve out his six year term. With his election, this most likely means that the N-VA will need to choose a new leader, a tricky process given that its bench seems pretty thin on leadership material. However, de Wever is not out of national politics – he can use this new position to further boost his national standing. Indeed, in his victory speech, he made clear references to the federal government and the national scene. This victory allowed him to reiterate his claim that the government – which he styles the “tax government” (a reference to a traditional complaint on Flemish nationalists, that Flanders subsidizes Wallonia and pays more in taxes than it receives) – does not enjoy the support of a majority of Flemish voters.

The other success of the night was the PVDA+, a small far-left party active on both sides of the linguistic border which did very well in both regions. The PVDA+ (known as the PTB+ in Wallonia) had hitherto been one of those negligible far-left groupings which have had no success at the national level. While local ballots are usually kind to those type of parties, their emergence is quite interesting. It likely drained more votes away from the sp.a, likely left-wing supporters unhappy with the party’s participation in a government oriented towards budget cuts and austerity-type policies.

In Ghent, the sp.a was comforted by the easy reelection of mayor Daniël Termont (sp.a), his party won an absolute majority in the council with 45.5% against 17.1% for the N-VA.

In Bruges, the sp.a will take the leadership of a coalition with the CD&V with Renaat Landuyt as mayor. The Socialists won the most seats (14, gaining 2, and 26.8%) against 13 (26.6%) for the CD&V, allowing the sp.a to become the senior rather than junior partners. The N-VA won 19.8% and 10 seats.

The sp.a held on in Leuven/Louvain, despite losing 3 seats (they now hold 16). The N-VA placed second with 19% and 9 seats. The coalition between the sp.a and CD&V has been renewed.

The N-VA became the largest party in Aalst, with 31% and 15 seats against 17.3% and 8 seats for the CD&V led by the incumbent mayor. The VB, which had placed first in this former textile town in 2006, collapsed from 22.8% to 10.8%. The Liberals and Socialists also suffered smaller loses. The N-VA also won in Sint-Niklaas, taking 28.5% and 13 seats against 12 seats for the sp.a, the largest party in 2006. The VB, again, was the main victim, falling from 26.6% to 11.7%.

In Kortrijk/Courtrai, however, the CD&V held its ground pretty well, winning 33% and 15 seats. The N-VA only placed third with 16.3% and 7 seats. However, the Open VLD – second with 21% and 9 seats – has announced that it will form a coalition with the sp.a and N-VA to topple the CD&V, which have governed the city for 150 years. The CD&V is livid, denouncing an “anti-democratic” coalition.

The sp.a was shaken up in Oostende, where the party had won over 45% and 20 seats in 2006. This year, the Socialists are down 13.5%, to only 32% and 15 seats. The N-VA, with 22.7% and 10 seats placed second, benefiting from a major dip in the VB vote. The incumbent three party red/blue/orange majority should, however, hold on.

The mayor’s list, composed of the sp.a, Groen! and independents in Hasselt has held on, with 33% and 15 seats and will govern with the CD&V, which came third. With 25.5% and 11 seats, the N-VA was a good second.

Finally, in Ypres, the CD&V-N-VA cartel led by former Prime Minister Yves Leterme won 52.8% and 21 seats.

In the provincial councils in Flanders, the N-VA was quite successful. The CD&V held on to a tight plurality in Limburg and West Flanders, but the N-VA became the largest party in all other provinces. In Antwerp, the N-VA won 36% and elected 27 councillors, up from the 30.7% it had won in the province in the 2010 federal elections. In the Flemish Brabant, the nationalist party took 26% and 19 seats against 19.5% for the CD&V. In East Flanders, with 26% and 21 seats, the N-VA fall a bit below what they won in 2010 but they are far ahead of the CD&V (19.8%) and Open VLD (19.3%). Only in Limburg and West Flanders did the CD&V outpace the N-VA, but only with a one seat edge over them.

Wallonia and Bruxelles-Capitale

Wallonia and the capital region were not as interesting, but did feature a few noteworthy contests. In Brussels, first and foremost, the PS has maintained its hold, with 29% and 18 seats against 18% and 17.9% for the cdH and MR-Open VLD respectively. However, the cdH, despite a strong result (2006 was an exceptional result, largely maintaining it this year is excellent), will be out of the new coalition and be replaced by the MR. The N-VA won 4.3% and 1 seat. The FDF (Fédéralistes Démocrates Francophonesa former member of the MR which quit in 2011 after the MR accepted splitting up BHV) won 7.6% and 3 seats.

In the capital region, Schaerbeek mayor Bernard Clerfayt (FDF) won a third term, but with a reduced majority, shedding four seats. The PS, led by Laurette Onkelinx, maintained itself at its 2006 level, which had been an historic result for the PS in a town where it had been weak. In Anderlecht, meanwhile, the PS gained four seats to win 21, placing comfortably ahead of the liberal mayor’s list. An “Islam” list won 4% and 1 seat in the town, it also took a seat in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, where the MR has ended 20 years of PS rule. While the PS mayor’s list placed first with 16 seats, down 3; the liberals (15 seats) have formed a coalition with the cdH and Ecolo. Controversy, meanwhile, in Watermael-Boitsfort, where the co-president of Ecolo Olivier Deleuze will become mayor after a deal with the MR and cdH which will topple mayor Martine Payfa (FDF), whose list topped the poll. The leader of FDF, Olivier Maingain, has retained his seat in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert with over 55% of the vote and an absolute majority.

In Wallonia, the PS has roared back in its Charleroi stronghold, where the party had taken a mighty tumble in 2006 in the wake of major scandals. The PS, led by Paul Magnette, won 47.7% and 30 seats, giving it an absolute majority. The MR and the far-right (the FN) were the main victims, though cdH and Ecolo suffered loses as well. The far-left PTB+ won 3.4%, enough for one seat.

In Mons, another working-class PS stronghold in Hainaut, the PS list – led locally by Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo – won 55.2% and 29 seats. In Tournai, the PS has maintained its hold and will continue its coalition with the MR, which gained 2 seats.

In Liège, the PS retained its 2006 level (38%, 22 seats – up 1) while the MR lost 3 seats. The PTB+, particularly strong in Liège and its old mining hinterland, took 6.4% and 2 seats. Indeed, in Herstal, an old industrial town and PS stronghold, the PTB+ won 14% and 4 seats (up 2), a distant second behind the PS which held its huge absolute majority (51% and 20 seats), led by Frédéric Daerden, the son of the late Michel Daerden (known for showing up drunk to an interview with his son on the night of the 2006 local elections). Very similar deal in nearby Seraing.

In Namur, cdH mayor Maxime Prevot is happy, the cdH have won an extra 3 seats, seemingly at the expense of Ecolo who lost 4.

Not any interesting stuff in the provincial councils, all parties largely won what they had won back in 2006.

For those looking for more results, La Libre Belgique has an interactive map which includes the entirety of Belgium.

While south of the linguistic border these elections viewed a whole reserved only few surprises and saw no major change compared to 2010 or 2006, the results in Flanders carried more weight. For the N-VA, the local elections were always going to be tougher because of the special realities and the difficulties associated with implanting a brand new political force in smaller towns whose local government has long been dominated by an established party. However, while the N-VA did not win the tsunami some had predicted – which is not very surprising – it can be said that it has achieved, more or less, what it wanted. Undeniably, Antwerp is the crown and the N-VA won it, making all other results moot. But in the provincial councils, the N-VA was quite successful and even in larger municipalities it had some successes, taking into consideration local factors. It remains to be seen what the implications of having Bart de Wever as mayor will be, both on Belgian politics and the N-VA in particular. Will Bart de Wever focus on governance at the local level or will he retain his strong presence in federal politics? If he does not, can the N-VA continue to grow as ensure its status as Flanders’ new hegemonic party, under a new leader, whoever it might be?

In the next post, I will cover the Czech regional and senatorial (first round) elections. Time permitting, I might include a quick summary of the regional elections in the Azores. I will also try to have something on Montenegro, but Lithuania will likely be covered following the second round of its election at the end of the month.

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