Flemish Nationalists Win Belgian Elections, Thwarting Ascent of Secessionist Party

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Voters in Belgium handed a victory to a conservative Flemish nationalist party, disproving polls that had predicted a sweep to first place by Flemish secessionists, preliminary results showed on Sunday.

The New Flemish Alliance, a party that seeks greater autonomy for the Dutch-speaking northern half of Belgium, was poised in the national elections to become the country’s largest.

The results, if confirmed in the final count, will bring relief to the country’s political establishment, which had long been bracing for a victory by the far-right party Vlaams Belang.

With more than 70 percent of the votes counted nationwide on Sunday evening, the New Flemish Alliance was set to secure 22 percent of the national vote, with Vlaams Belang trailing with 17 percent.

“Friends, we have won these elections! And admit it, you didn’t expect that,” the New Flemish Alliance leader, Bart De Wever, told supporters gathered in Brussels.

“The polls were bad,” he added. “The comments in the press were scathing. Our obituary was written. But you never gave up.”

A victory for Vlaams Belang, which translates to Flemish Interest, would have presented a quandary for mainstream parties that have vowed not to work with the separatist and staunchly anti-immigrant party.

The strong showing for Vlaams Belang, which is still set to make significant gains compared with the elections in 2019, will make that political isolation difficult to enforce. Its rise comes as far-right parties across Europe were surging in elections for the European Parliament, also concluding on Sunday.

Belgium, a prosperous northern European country of some 11 million people, is home both to E.U. institutions and to the NATO headquarters, which sit in its capital, Brussels. The country is divided along linguistic lines between its French-speaking south, Wallonia, and its Flemish — Dutch-speaking — north, Flanders. It is also home to sizable immigrant communities, including Muslims with North African roots.

The country has long navigated its linguistic divide with a federal system that gives wide latitude and autonomy to its distinctive regions. With the New Flemish Alliance, a more moderate Flemish nationalist party than Vlaams Belang, expected to become the country’s largest, the call for even more Flemish autonomy could define postelection negotiations.

The New Flemish Alliance wants to negotiate a far-reaching overhaul of Belgium’s system of government to further increase regional autonomy. That is not enough for Vlaams Belang and its leader, Tom Van Grieken, who has made clear that the party’s call for an independent Flanders is not just rhetoric. Vlaams Belang wants to divide Belgium and turn Flanders into a separate country.

It is far from certain, however, that the two Flemish nationalist parties will join forces. The longstanding vow by all other Belgian parties never to govern with Vlaams Belang is still likely to keep Vlaams Belang out of power at a national level.

In its unique effort to accommodate regional differences, Belgium has created a convoluted state structure that makes voting a multitiered task. Election Day means directly or indirectly filling the seats of no fewer than six Parliaments, and kicking off negotiations to form six governments.

With Wallonia traditionally leaning to the left and Flanders to the right, political forces have long struggled to unite at the national level, with multiparty federal governments taking months and sometimes more than a year to emerge.

The elections in 2019 also brought a surge by Vlaams Belang, which made negotiations tougher than ever; Belgium remained without a formal government for nearly two years. This time, the far-right party’s even greater success has shrunk the political center further.

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