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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 20:56 GMT 21:56 UK
Belgian far right poll boost fears
By Shirin Wheeler
BBC Europe correspondent

Belgium's voters go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new government.

The current Liberal-led "rainbow coalition" with the Socialists and Greens looks set to win a second term, with Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt at its head.

But there are worries that the country's far-right Vlaams Blok Party could see another surge in support in the north of the country.

Anke Vandermeersch
If people who emigrate here don't adapt to our systems, to our laws, to our values, they should go back to where they came from
Anke Vandermeersch
Vlaams Blok candidate

The party's share of the vote been rising steadily.

Now some are beginning to question the mainstream's strategy for curbing it.

At a typical Vlaams Blok rally the faithful congregate to hear the creed of Belgium's far right.

There are fiercely anti-immigrant speeches and attacks on multiculturalism.

At the core of the message is the call for independence for Flanders, the northern Flemish-speaking part of the country.

The hall inevitably explodes in a rendition of "De Vlaamse Leeuw" - the anthem of Flanders.

But now the party has enlisted a former beauty queen to help present a softer front.

Anke Vandermeersch is running for the Senate in the elections.

As she treads the campaign trail, peddling her fliers and leaflets at the Hoboken market just outside Antwerp, this tall peroxide blonde towers above most of the shoppers.

But it is soon clear that despite the pretty packaging the Vlaams Blok's message has not changed much.

"We still are very much against the multicultural society. We need people who emigrate here to adapt. If they don't adapt to our systems, to our laws, to our values, they should go back to where they came from," she tells the BBC.

Cordon sanitaire

Antwerp is a stronghold of the Blok, its suburbs and centre proving fertile ground.

Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt
Verhofstadt's coalition is likely to be re-elected

In the last local elections one in three people here voted for them. They are the largest party in the city.

The only reason they do not hold office locally is because an alliance of all the other mainstream parties, known as the cordon sanitaire, has kept them out.

But conversations with people in the marketplace show many are frustrated with that policy and will vote for the Blok once again.

"Give them a chance," says one bespectacled man at a flower stall.

A woman pauses while buying waffles to say: "Let them get into government and prove what they're worth."

Not everyone goes this far.

But Belgium's mainstream parties are beginning to admit that the strategy for curbing the rise of the far right may not be working.

Muslim voice

Stefaan De Clerck - the leader of the opposition Flemish Christian Democrats - seems to be bracing himself for another rise in the Vlaams Blok's share of the vote, which already stands at 15%.

Resist candidate Dyab Abou Jahjah
Vlaams Blok talks about assimilation, [the other parties] speak about assimilation - that's the power of the Vlaams Blok
Dyab Abou Jahjah
Muslim candidate

"The so-called democratic parties decided to organise this 'cordon sanitaire' against the Vlaams Blok, but finally we have to conclude it hasn't helped our situation," he said. "They're still growing and that's a problem."

But the rise of the right has generated another challenger to Belgium's mainstream parties.

The movement Resist claims to speak for the country's young and frustrated Muslims.

Its main spokesman, Dyab Abou Jahjah, who is now fighting for a seat in parliament argues fear of the Vlaams Blok is already dictating the establishment's political agenda.

"Vlaams Blok talks about security, so they start talking about security. Vlaams Blok talks about assimilation they speak about assimilation. That's the power of the Vlaams Blok," he said.

"It is imposing itself on the governing parties without being in government."

There is no chance that the Vlaams Blok will get into power through these elections, but any increase will be a worry and an embarrassment for a Belgian political establishment which has watched the popularity of these Flemish Nationalists rise steadily over the last 10 years.

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