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Last Updated: Monday, 12 July, 2004, 12:53 GMT 13:53 UK
Belgium's far right builds up strength
By Alexandra Fouché
BBC News Online, Brussels

Belgium's far right Vlaams Blok party scored a massive election victory in the regional election which took place in Flanders in mid-June and in the European elections which took place on the same day.

The much reviled party garnered almost a quarter of votes in each election - scoring 23% in the European elections and 24% in the Flemish poll.

Vlaams Blok party chairman Frank Vanhecke voting in recent Belgian election with daughter Emma
Vanhecke believes achieving power is only a matter of time

This should not come as a surprise as they have been steadily gaining ground over the last few years on a platform of anti-immigration and Flemish independence policies.

Party chairman Frank Vanhecke is not surprised either: "We have been the voice of the large majority of Flemish voters," he told BBC News Online.

"Our success is due to our programme and the bad government we have had for the past years."

He believes they are getting more and more mainstream. While their success may have been originally based on their anti-immigration and law and order policies, it is now also based on the business community being interested in redressing the balance of economic power in Belgium to their advantage.

The Vlaams Blok argues that the Flemish, richer half of Belgium are financially bolstering their French-speaking cousins.

"Our big wins have not just come from people confronted by immigration and crime problems; we have kept all those voters and we have added Socialist voters, ex-voters from the liberal party and business people," Mr Vanhecke says.

He believes achieving power is only a matter of time given their recent, encouraging results. If they do, Belgium might become a very different place.

Flemish future

Mr Vanhecke says they would hold a vote in the Flemish Parliament on Flemish independence and have it confirmed by a public referendum. But this might be some way off as by his own account, only about 30%-40% of the population in Flanders currently supports Flemish independence.

We think people should learn the language and should be prepared to take an oath for their children to become Flemish or European people, to become Flemish people among Flemish people
Vlaams Blok party chairman Frank Vanhecke
The next stage in the Vlaams Blok plan is for immigrants who display "criminal behaviour" and those who are in the country illegally to be sent back to their country of origin; to make it harder for immigrants to obtain Belgian nationality; and for those in Belgium "to adapt and respect our laws".

This would mean ditching Belgium's current policy of multiculturalism where different nationalities can live together in the same state.

"We think people should learn the language and should be prepared to take an oath for their children to become Flemish or European people, to become Flemish people among Flemish people," Mr Vanhecke says.

They single out Arabs or Muslims ("they are the same on the ground") "as the problem. There are no problems with Jews or Chinese people."

Court case

In the meantime, they have more pressing concerns. A Belgian court in April convicted three party associations of breaching anti-racist legislation.

If the ruling is confirmed in November by Belgium's highest court, the Vlaams Blok could lose crucial state funding and could be banned from public media.

In this case, the party would have to make some changes, such as its name and its statute to pave the way for sharing power in local governments, but these would be merely cosmetic, its party chairman says.

"We will keep the programme of the party as it is, but would change the name and alter other 'minor points' (e.g. how the party president is elected)," he says.

When asked his view on whether his party is racist, Mr Vanhecke says: "It is unjust, we do not have any kind of politics on a racial basis, our propositions generally speaking are already policy in European countries (e.g. UK, Sweden, Netherlands)."

Media dilemma

Belgian politicians, human rights organisations and media do not see it that way.

Belgian politicians in Antwerp are refusing to share power with Mr Vanhecke's group even though it now represents the second political force in Flanders and got a third of the vote in the recent election in Antwerp.

Human rights groups have in the past accused the Blok of singling out immigrants and people of North African origin in its campaign material.

As for Belgian media, there is a now real dilemma over how to handle the Blok.

Belgian journalists had until recently observed an unofficial blackout, but with the recent success of the party, are finding it harder to ignore this major political force in Belgian politics.

The editor of the Flemish centre-right Standaard newspaper, Peter Vandermeersch, sent an open letter to his colleagues after the elections on how to best deal with the Blok.

In it, he comments on the sociological profile of newsrooms; most journalists are university-educated, tend to be left-wing and usually live in problem-free areas, and are out of touch with difficult areas, he says.

"I am not pleading for a quota of degree-free journalists to be set up, but we should at least try so that, professionally, one does not lose contact with the poor or difficult areas," he told the French-language Libre Belgique newspaper.

Mr Vanhecke says his party has already noticed the changes and that in the recent elections they received more coverage with interviews with leaders of the party in all the main Flemish newspapers for the first time.


SEE ALSO:
A radical voice for Europe's Arabs
03 Apr 03  |  Crossing Continents
Belgium's far right
09 Oct 00  |  Europe


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