chapter  10
It is still a long way from Madou Square to Law Street: the evolution of the Flemish Bloc
Pages 17

Madou Square (Place Madou, Madou Plein) is the location of the headquarters of the Flemish Interest (Vlaams Belang, VB), the only significant radical rightwing or national-populist party in Belgium since the Second World War. The Flemish party has survived external pressures, electoral ups and downs and internal strife since its foundation in 1978/1979. In spite of a fairly sizeable electorate and a strong party organisation, the party seems as far removed from governmental power today as it was 35 years ago. Geographically, its headquarters are not at all far from the government buildings at Law Street (Rue de la Loi, Wetstraat), but politically the distance is considerable. Mainstream parties – in Belgium: the Social Democrats, Liberals and Christian Democrats – together with the Greens imposed a cordon sanitaire in 1989 which has been maintained effectively until the present. Lack of opportunities for office and a cordon sanitaire have been identified by scholars as negative conditions for mainstreaming (Minkenberg 2013; Van der Brug and Fennema 2004; Van Spanje and Van der Brug 2007). Others, however, have demonstrated that ostracised parties have not frozen their programmatic development, and are very well able to move into the mainstream (Akkerman and Rooduijn 2014). Moreover, the effects of the cordon sanitaire on the positions of the VB are highly contested (Breuning and Ishiyama 1998; Coffé 2005; Damen 2001; Swyngedouw and Van Craen 2001). Adding to the dissensus is that different conceptualisations of mainstreaming which been used. We therefore use a broad concept of mainstreaming which covers different dimensions (see Introduction). Moreover, we not only look at external or internal conditions like office opportunities, cordon sanitaire and party organisation, but also take account of the goals and strategies of the VB. Flemish Interest has its roots in the Flemish nationalist movement. When the

party emerged in 1978 under the name Flemish Bloc (Vlaams Blok, VB), a large part of its activists and candidates came from Flemish nationalist organisations (Swyngedouw 1998: 61; Art 2011: 111-115). In 1940 a large part of the Flemish nationalist movement embraced national-socialism and began to collaborate with the German occupation. After 1945 many of its cadres were arrested and sent to prison. In 1954 it re-emerged as a political party, the Flemish

People’s Union (Vlaamse Volksunie, VU). The VU was a broad coalition of ‘hardcore’ and authoritarian nationalists with more moderate autonomists, including even a small but growing left wing with social-democratic ideas (Gijsels and Van der Velpen 1989: 39-55; Matheve 2014: 97-98). When the moderate majority decided to cooperate with the mainstream parties in a grand coalition and agree to a constitutional reform aimed at regional autonomy, the hardcore nationalists bolted the VU (Van Haute 2005: 247). Two new parties emerged, one led by Karel Dillen, the other by Senator Lode Claes. The two parties participated in the 1978 parliamentary elections as a cartel (alliance) under the name ‘Flemish Bloc’. Yet only Dillen managed to win a seat in the Antwerp district, where a fertile soil for hardcore nationalism existed as many former nationalists who had collaborated with the German occupation had settled in this city (Art 2008: 427). Initially, the VB advocated above all an independent and authoritarian Flemish

state. The leader of the party, Dillen, referred often to ‘elites’ and ‘aristocratic ideals’ (Gijsels and Van der Velpen 1989: 34, 64; see also Volkskrant 04-02-1992). Many leading members of the party had direct or indirect connections with the quasi-fascist movement of the 1930s or mentioned a father, uncle or grandfather who had fought in the Second World War on the German side (Art 2008: 427-428; Van den Brink 1999: 55-56, 98-99, 112, 187-188, 203). The historical origins of the party and its embeddedness in a hardcore Flemish nationalist subculture incited public questioning of its legitimacy from the beginning. A cordon sanitaire by mainstream parties was imposed in 1989 and has been maintained until today, with very few exceptions. In 1989 the leaders of all major parties in Flanders – Christian Democrats,

Social Democrats, Liberals, Greens and the Flemish nationalist People’s Union (VolksUnie, VU) – signed an agreement that they would refrain from any cooperation with the VB at any level (Damen 2001: 92-93). Though the agreement has been interpreted differently by the signing parties and was even formally cancelled by the president of the VU, it has been respected in practice. The VB has been excluded from government and from electoral alliances at the federal, regional and local level. In the Belgian as well as the Flemish parliament, it has been isolated very effectively (Damen 2001: 103-104). A few cracks in the cordon have appeared in some municipalities, when members of VU and its successor the New-Flemish Alliance (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, N-VA) or the Christian Democrats were elected in local government with support from the VB (Damen 2001: 101-103; Buelens and Deschouwer 2003: 33-34; Het Belang van Limburg 2013). The legitimacy of the VB was also denied in court in 2004. Three organi-

sations affiliated with the VB were considered ‘racist’ and consequently banned by the Supreme Court (Court of Cassation). Immediately the party decided to adopt a new name – Flemish Interest instead of Flemish Bloc – and a new, somewhat more moderate programme (Erk 2005; see also below). For the first ten years of its existence, the VB was probably too small to be

taken very seriously by the established parties. In terms of votes, the VB had a modest start: after 1.4 per cent of the vote in 1978 it obtained only 1.1 per cent

(and again one seat) in 1981 (see Table 10.1). During the early 1980s it gradually shifted its emphasis from Flemish independence to the immigration issue (see also below). That programmatic change, combined with an organisational strengthening, appeared to be electorally rewarding. In the late 1980s the party managed to gain electoral influence around Antwerp, and after 1991 also in other areas (Van Craen and Swyngedouw 2002). At the municipal elections of 1988 the party made a breakthrough in Antwerp (almost 18 per cent of the vote) and could no longer be ignored (Van Eycken and Schoeters 1988: 22-25). The VB made its first impressive national breakthrough in the 1991 general elections, gaining 6.6 per cent of the popular vote. Electoral growth culminated in 11.6 per cent of the national vote and 17.9 per cent in the regional elections in Flanders in 2003. As the VB does not present lists in the unilingual French-speaking constituencies, its share of the Flemish target electorate represents a more exact image of its electoral performance (see Table 10.1). The electoral growth slowed down after 2000 and turned into decline after 2007. The party lost voters to the N-VA. Led by the popular Bart De Wever, the N-VA also promoted a tough Flemish nationalism combined with an anti-establishment discourse, but without xenophobia. The N-VA was quite successful at the elections in 2007 and even more in 2010 and 2014 – at the expense of the VB (Matheve 2014; Pauwels 2013: 85-86). The declining electoral results and continuing isolation of the VB may

have exacerbated internal tensions. In the 1980s and 1990s, disagreements about strategy and personal tensions between Antwerp-based ‘activists’ around Filip Dewinter and ‘parliamentarists’ around Gerolf Annemans and Frank Vanhecke could still be managed and reconciled (Van den Brink 1999: 118-119, 180). Vanhecke was appointed party president in 1996, succeeding the leader of the first hour Dillen. He resigned in 2008 and left the party in 2011 when he felt that the Antwerp-faction had gained complete control and did not tolerate divergent views any more (Het Laatste Nieuws 2011; Trouw 08-12-2009; Vanhecke 2011). Annemans was elected party president in 2012 and promised renewal, but could not stop the exodus of prominent party members, many of whom joined the N-VA ( 29-01-2014; Pauwels 2013: 94-95). At the elections of May 2014 the VB lost again many voters to the N-VA and achieved its worst result since 1987: 3.7 per cent (see Table 10.1). Five months later, the 28-year-old and relatively unknown Tom Van Grieken succeeded Annemans to become the youngest party president ever in Belgium.