Insofar as the international press took any interest in Belgium's local elections on 14 October 2012, the story it found there was about the rise of separatism. The Washington Post got in early with a headline the previous day: "As EU basks in Peace Prize glory, separatists from Belgium to Spain are on the march" (nationalists tend never to be "on the rise" but ever "on the march"). And like virtually all other media, the Huffington Post summarised the local elections as follows: "Big separatist gains in local Belgian elections."
But rather than the rise of Flemish nationalism, the local elections were about the transformation of Flemish nationalism.
As is usual in Belgian local elections, the prime media focus was Antwerp, the main city of the Dutch-speaking northern part of the country (Flanders), and the second biggest port in Europe. It is here that Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalist party the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), was contesting the elections and hoping to become the city’s first elected non-socialist mayor in postwar history.
In the past decade De Wever, who was raised in a strong Flemish nationalist family, has taken Flanders, and Belgium, by storm. He became the N-VA leader in 2004, three years after the party had been founded as the successor of the People’s Union (VU), the major Flemish nationalist party of the postwar period. The VU, haunted by internal strife for decades, had moved to the left in the 1970s, which led to a split from the radical right, which formed the Flemish Bloc (later Flemish Interest, VB). The residual VU remained internally divided between democratic (but conservative) nationalists and progressive regionalists. In 2001 the former split off, under Geert Bourgeois, and founded the N-VA; the latter continued as SPIRIT, which later dissolved into the social-democratic SP.a.
The N-VA failed miserably in the 2003 federal elections, with only Bourgeois getting a seat in the lower chamber (the party got no representative at all in the senate). The party then needed an electoral alliance with the Christian Democratic CD&V to survive the 2004 elections. At this point, De Wever takes over the party from Bourgeois and develops it into (in his own words) "a Flemish people’s party". Combining an explicit and proud conservative nationalism with a modern and omnipresent media appearance, De Wever became the newest flavour in Belgian media and politics - which had lost most of their main characters in the late 1990s.
Now, in the 14 October elections, De Wever has neared his lifetime ambition of becoming the mayor of "his" city. The N-VA won 38% of the vote, decimating the City List of the social-democratic SP.a and the Christian Democratic CD&V (28.6%), but most importantly the populist radical-right VB, which collapsed from 33.5% to 10.2%. While coalition negotiations will not be easy, there is little doubt that De Wever will be the next mayor of Antwerp, most probably in coalition with the City List.
But what does this all mean for Antwerp, Flanders, and Belgium?
The new landscape
Where the city of Antwerp is concerned, this election was not about the success of Flemish nationalism, but about the end of the VB and two-bloc polarisation. The populist radical-right VB had dominated Antwerp politics since its breakthrough in 1988, when it got 17.7% of the vote. In response to this "black Sunday", as the election day would forever be known (even though many other black Sundays would follow), the other political parties established a cordon sanitaire: an agreement not to establish any political coalition with the VB. The cordon has held to this day, despite a little glitch at the beginning. With the VB gradually increasing its electorate to over 30%, and becoming the biggest party in the city, the cordon sanitaire transformed Antwerp politics from multiparty to two-party, i.e. the "democratic party" against the VB.
In the 2006 local elections, social-democratic mayor Patrick Janssens ran a successful campaign as the (only) "democratic candidate" against the "anti-democratic" VB. While the other coalition parties ran independently, many of their voters chose Janssens in an attempt to "take the city back from the VB". Although the VB actually increased its score, from 33.0% to 33.5%, it lost the title of the largest party of Antwerp to the SP.a of Janssens, which gained 35.5%. The media unanimously declared the Antwerp elections as a defeat of the VB and within weeks the party itself bought into the narrative. In the following years the VB slowly but steadily disintegrated. Long-simmering personal struggles came to the fore and prominent members either left voluntarily (e.g. former chairman Franck Vanhecke) or were kicked out (e.g. former Brussels police chief Bart Debie). The VB, the party with the longest winning streak in recent Belgian history, has been losing elections ever since.
With the VB no longer a major threat, Janssens' two-party strategy lost its appeal and De Wever saw his chance to realise his boyhood dream. Moreover, as the elections were no longer about the VB and its issues, the N-VA no longer ran the risk of being accused of being "VB-lite". This notwithstanding, the election campaign was unexpectedly harsh, particularly given that De Wever’s party had been a member of the city coalition under Janssens since 2006. Finally, though, Antwerp politics has returned to a multiparty system.
But despite the massive changes in seats, the Antwerp elections do not show so much change in terms of broader ideology. The SP.a-CD&V City List lost, but mostly the voters who deserted them were those who had only supported Janssens to fight back against the VB. In addition, the SP.a provided most of the new electorate of the radical left PvdA+, the real surprise winner with 8.0% of the vote (+6.1%). The N-VA got most of its new voters from the VB, which lost a staggering 23.3%. The statistics suggest that the rise of "Flemish nationalism" (represented in dogmatic form by the VB) is rather minimal - since the N-VA result in 2012 is just 4% higher than the VB result in 2006. In fact, in 2006 the N-VA and VB together won roughly 44.6% (although the N-VA was then in cartel with CD&V), while the total score of the two in 2012 is 47.9%.
This is not to say that Antwerp politics will not change. Most importantly, the N-VA is not confronted with a cordon sanitaire as the VB was, and it will thus be able to govern the city (albeit in coalition with non-separatists). Moreover, the party will be able to draw upon support from the Flemish government, in which the N-VA is a major player. Together, these levels will further frustrate collaboration with the federal government, in which Dutch- and French-speaking parties govern in parity, but without the N-VA.
To reaffirm, the local elections in Flanders were less about the rise of Flemish nationalism than the transformation of Flemish nationalism. The VB is not dead yet, as VB chairman Bruno Valkeniers declared with a degree of pathos as the results came in; but the party is (for the moment) no longer relevant in Flemish politics. This also means that Flemish nationalism is now squarely back in the conservative, but liberal-democratic, camp. Paradoxically, this makes it actually more threatening to the Belgian state. Because while radical-right Flemish nationalism could be contained by a cordon sanitaire, conservative Flemish nationalism cannot.