Elections 2024: The rise of the far right in Belgium
The far-right Vlaams Belang has surged in the polls to become Belgium's largest party. Their surprising comeback has many wondering whether the decades-old political pact never to cooperate with the party will hold after the 2024 elections.
The anti-immigration party could win up to 23 per cent of the vote in Flanders, according to the latest polls. This would make it the largest party both in the region and in Belgium, with a projected 22 out of 150 seats in the federal parliament.
The party’s rise from obscurity to success is striking, but not unprecedented
With Belgium due to hold European, federal and regional elections on 9 June 2024, the party's remarkable rise is causing nervousness. Although a lot can change in less than a year, Vlaams Belang's ascent seems sustainable. It has not polled below 20 per cent in Flanders in the past four years.
The party’s rise from obscurity to success in less than a decade is striking, but not unprecedented. Its popularity has a long history of lows and peaks, with each peak pushing other parties to find ways to prevent it coming to power.
Vlaams Belang was founded in 1979 under the name Vlaams Blok. The party was a radical breakaway from Volksunie, a big-tent party that advocated greater Flemish autonomy. While Volksunie increasingly settled for seeking more regional power within a federal state structure, the only acceptable way forward for Vlaams Blok was Flemish separatism.
The party initially campaigned solely on Flemish independence, but gained broader public support when it began focusing on immigration. It was among the first in a wave of European far-right parties to capitalise on anti-immigrant sentiment in the 1980s. Vlaams Blok began peddling an anti-Islam agenda, portraying migrant communities from countries such as Turkey and Morocco as a threat to Flemish identity.
Its unexpected victory, dubbed "Black Sunday", shocked Belgian society
The party initially remained relatively small, but its virulent positions made the political establishment increasingly nervous. After a first local electoral success in Antwerp in the late 1980s, all other Flemish parties signed a cordon sanitaire against Vlaams Blok. They agreed never to cooperate with the party, because of its disregard for human rights and democratic principles.
Vlaams Blok made its first national breakthrough in the 1991 elections, rising from two to 12 seats in the federal parliament and becoming the largest party in the electoral district of Antwerp. Its unexpected victory, dubbed "Black Sunday", shocked Belgian society. It prompted parties to cement the cordon sanitaire with a resolution in the Flemish parliament.
Rise, conviction and fall
While the cordon kept Vlaams Blok out of power, the party continued to grow in popularity. By 2004, it secured 24 per cent of the vote in Flanders. That year, the party was convicted of violating Belgium's anti-racism law, when a judge ruled that it "manifestly and systematically incites discrimination".
The ruling banned Vlaams Blok from participating in elections. However, just five days after the conviction, the party re-emerged under a new name. Under the banner of Vlaams Belang, nothing prevented the same politicians from running again. The party changed little besides its name, though it now coloured just enough inside the lines to avoid another conviction.
The party was poised for a comeback just as migration was about to take centre stage in Europe
In the following decade, the party's popularity fell sharply. Its success was thwarted by a new, more moderate alternative for right-wing voters. The Flemish nationalist party N-VA had emerged as an electoral powerhouse, increasingly siphoning off votes from Vlaams Belang. By 2014, Vlaams Belang won only 3.67 per cent of the national vote.
But the low point also proved to be the start of a new upswing. Shortly after the 2014 defeat, 27-year-old Tom Van Grieken took the helm of the party. The young leader with a background in advertising had been a party member since the age of 13. Under his leadership, the party was poised for a comeback just as migration was about to take centre stage in Europe.
Europe was on the eve of the 2015 refugee crisis. Refugees and migrants from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq began arriving on Europe's shores in significantly increased numbers. Thousands of people would drown trying to reach the continent via the Mediterranean.
The crisis put Vlaams Belang's core business back at the top of the political agenda. As Europe struggled to manage the flow of refugees, right-wing populist parties gained support across the continent.
The first cracks started appearing in the decades-old cordon sanitaire
In the following years, Vlaams Belang's popularity fluctuated between 7 and 13 per cent in Flanders. The party's success ran inversely to that of N-VA, as the more moderate right-wing party also toughened its stance on migration. Vlaams Belang would only really capitalise on the new anti-immigration sentiment in the 2019 elections.
Vlaams Belang became the second largest party in Flanders with 21 per cent of votes in 2019. With its newfound success and more polished image, the first cracks also started appearing in the decades-old cordon sanitaire. During negotiations to form the next Flemish government, N-VA leader Bart De Wever twice invited the far-right party to talks.
The N-VA eventually formed a Flemish government without Vlaams Belang. Though it seemed even more unlikely that the party would join the federal government, Vlaams Belang's success in 2019 also made federal negotiations thornier than ever. It took 493 days for the downsized centrist parties to forge a permanent federal government.
"If Vlaams Belang cleans up its shit, why not?"
As Vlaams Belang continues to grow, the burning question is whether the cordon sanitaire will hold in 2024. While most parties remain resolute, N-VA's position is more ambiguous. Some N-VA politicians have suggested that they would consider joining forces if Vlaams Belang filed down its sharpest edges.
"If Vlaams Belang cleans up its shit, why not?" N-VA leader Bart De Wever said in May when asked by De Zondag if he would ever govern with the party. "But as long as this party tolerates extremists who constantly insult and attack others below the belt, it will put itself out of business. The day it sets a credible course to stop this, it can join the government as far as I am concerned.”
The power seat
Could the ambivalence within N-VA lead to a government seat for Vlaams Belang? Even if N-VA were to give way, Vlaams Belang's entry into power is far from assured. Although the two parties together have an impressive 45 per cent in the Flemish polls, they do not yet form a Flemish majority. And it seems highly unlikely that they could persuade a third party to form a Flemish government with them.
The waters are even deeper at the federal level, where Flemish parties share the negotiating table with parties standing for election in the French-speaking part of the country. There is no far-right party in Wallonia, where voters traditionally lean more to the left. Centrist parties in the south face a different political challenge: the recent rise of the far-left Workers' Party of Belgium.
While a power seat for Vlaams Belang seems a long way off, a 2024 victory for the party could still have far-reaching consequences. Both on the federal and regional levels, they could become a major source of parliamentary support for a range of right-wing populist policies. Their electoral success could also put greater Flemish autonomy, or even independence, firmly back on the political agenda.
#FlandersNewsService | Vlaams Belang leader Tom Van Grieken (centre) during a party meeting in Turnhout on 1 May 2023 © BELGA PHOTO KRISTOF VAN ACCO