Flemish Nationalists Expand Base Across Belgium’s North

Conservatives favoring increased autonomy for Dutch-speaking parts of Belgium win support.

Flemish nationalist leader Bart De Wever urged a restructuring of Belgian’s federal state on Sunday after his party won the local elections in the Dutch-speaking north of the country. He demanded that Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, a Walloon socialist, opened negotiations “to enable both Flanders and Wallonia to look after their own affairs.”

De Wever’s national conservatives emerged as the largest party from the 2010 general election but didn’t join Di Rupo’s government. They boosted their support in Flanders on Sunday at the expense of mainstream right-wing parties but especially the separatist Vlaams Belang which has been barred from local and national government by the remaining political parties.

In Antwerp, the two nationalist parties secured a majority in the city council but it’s doubtful that De Wever’s members will seek a coalition with the far right. Rather, an alliance with the Christian Democrat and liberal parties, both of which are participants in Di Rupo’s federal government, would increase the nationalists’ chances of achieving the “confederation” for Belgium which they claim to seek.

Whereas Flanders is Belgium’s economic powerhouse, the south remains impoverished and subject to high unemployment. With the socialists in power there, the Walloons nevertheless enjoy generous social security provisions for which the Flemish say they are footing the bill.

Unlike the Vlaams Belang, which favors secession for the north, De Wever’s party advocates fiscal independence for the Dutch and French-speaking parts of Belgium but cooperation in areas such as defense and foreign policy.

After its failure to join the ruling coalition in 2010, despite its general election victory, the party will be anxious to prove that it can govern before 2014 when Belgians head to the polls again in European and parliamentary elections. If the Flemish nationalists have little to show for then, right-wing voters could well return to the Christian Democrats or Vlaams Belang.