Flemish nationalists win Belgian election, thwarting separatist party rise

Belgian voters handed victory to the conservative Flemish nationalist party, preliminary results released Sunday showed, overturning poll predictions that the Flemish separatists would take first place.

The New Flemish Alliance, a party working for greater autonomy for Belgium's Dutch-speaking north, is expected to become the country's largest party in national elections.

If the final vote count is confirmed, it will bring some comfort to the country's political circles, who have long been waiting for a victory for the far-right Vlaams Belang party.

With more than 70% of votes counted nationwide on Sunday evening, the New Flemish Alliance was expected to receive 22% of the national vote, with Flemish Interest trailing behind with 17%.

“Friends, we won this election! Admit it, you didn't expect it,” Bart De Wever, leader of the New Flemish Alliance, told supporters gathered in Brussels.

“The polls were terrible,” he added. “The press was very scathing. Our obituary was already written. But you never gave up.”

A victory for Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest Party) would put mainstream parties in a difficult position as they have vowed not to work with the separatist and staunchly anti-immigrant party.

The strong showing by Flemish Interest, which is still set to make significant gains compared with the 2019 election, will make such political isolation difficult to enforce. The party’s rise comes as far-right parties across Europe gain momentum in the European Parliament elections, which also concluded on Sunday.

Belgium is a wealthy Nordic country with a population of about 11 million. The capital, Brussels, is home to the EU institutions and NATO headquarters. The country is divided by language into French-speaking Wallonia in the south and Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north. The country also has a sizeable immigrant community, including Muslims from North Africa.

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The country has long dealt with linguistic divisions using a federal system that gives its regions broad freedoms and autonomy. The New Flemish Alliance, a Flemish nationalist party more moderate than the Flemish Interest, is expected to become the country’s largest party, so calls for more Flemish autonomy could shape post-election talks.

The New Flemish Alliance wants a comprehensive reform of the Belgian government system to further increase regional autonomy. But that's not enough for the Flemish Interest Party and its leader Tom van Greeken, who made it clear that the party's call for Flemish independence is not just talk. The Flemish Interest Party wants to split Belgium and turn Flemish into an independent country.

However, it is far from clear whether the two major Flemish nationalist parties will unite. All other Belgian parties have long vowed never to form a coalition with Vlaams Interest, so Vlaams Interest may still be unable to govern at the national level.

Belgium has taken the unique step of creating a complex state structure to accommodate regional differences, making voting a multi-layered task. Election Day means directly or indirectly filling at least six parliamentary seats and launching negotiations to form six governments.

Because Wallonia has traditionally leaned to the left and Flanders to the right, the two major political forces have long found it difficult to unite at the national level, and a multi-party federal government can take months or even more than a year to be established.

The 2019 elections also brought the rise of the Flemish Interest Party, making negotiations more difficult than ever; Belgium has been without a formal government for nearly two years. This time, the far-right parties have had greater success, further narrowing the political center.

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