How Belgium’s Vlaams Belang Leads the Way in Digital Politics

This autumn the Populism in Action Project will be publishing a Special Issue of the open access journal Politics and Governance on populist radical right party organisation, with a special focus on the extent to which parties in this family remain centralized in decision-making. The Special Issue will cover both Western and Eastern/Central Europe and include contributions by experts from all over the continent. All four of the Populism in Action Project’s Research Fellows will contribute an article exploring the findings of the research that they’ve been undertaking since 2019. Ahead of the publication of the Special Issue, in this series of blog posts our research fellows share “three key takeaways” from their articles

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by Dr. Judith Sijstermans

In 2019, the leader of Belgium’s right-wing populist party Vlaams Belang, Tom van Grieken, went on a “pub tour” of Flanders. The party’s videos of the 34-year-old politician showed him surrounded by admiring, chanting young people who were passing around beers.

Two years later, van Grieken’s Instagram, with 59,000 followers, is a series of videos. They are a mixture of home improvement, his new son, and commentaries criticizing the Belgian government. A link in his biography points followers to one of the party’s main campaigns: register as a VB voter, get a free face mask.

This campaign speaks to the current moment where Covid-19 necessitates almost-exclusively digital means of campaigning. But VB has long used social media to gain traction, having spent more than any other Flemish party online during the 2019 election. Between March and November, they paid more than 1.2 million Euros for Facebook ads, compared to a total spend of 2.3 million Euros by all the other Flemish parties combined.

Graph illustrating spend by Flemish political parties in 2019 on social media advertising

Facebook Expenditures of Flemish Political Parties (March-November 2019)
Source: VRT https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2019/11/15/politieke-partijen-blijven-campagne-voeren/

The distance and informality of social media may seem antithetical to the traditional “mass party” model of a large party membership on the ground. But virtual and in-person party activities are complementary, creating and maintaining VB communities. The question is whether digital means of campaigning will continue their Coronavirus-era dominance, or whether they are just one more phase of ever-shifting party strategies for organisation.

Party-Building on the Street and the Facebook Feed

Van Grieken has championed both social media and “local anchoring”. The party has invested in local branches by hiring more staff based in each province and developing a branch mentorship program. The branches engage and connect with ordinary members through social activities like barbecues, New Year’s parties, and political meetings.

On social media platforms quick growth can come from small monetary investment.” As one VB MP said: “Facebook is a story of money. A Facebook [page] with half a million people is not that difficult. A few hundred thousand euros, and in a few weeks, you have one.”

This investment complements local branch life. Events are advertised on Facebook and open to members and non-members alike, providing a “low level” way of becoming involved in the party.

Social media also gives local leaders more effective means of communicating political messages. While leaflets can be in production for at least a month before delivery, posting a video is almost instant. VB representatives told me that videos and images are considered more appealing than printed texts, which are seen as uninteresting and too time-consuming to read.

Social media also reaches more informal party supporters and develops a wider base than traditional party membership campaigns. VB’s Facebook following of more than 600,000 outstrips its membership of approximately 20,000.

The Shift from Membership to Party Community

According to almost all the VB representatives I interviewed, there is a widespread lack of enthusiasm for organizational membership, not just of political parties but of all local organisations. So VB’s investment in local branches and social media is not primarily part of a membership recruitment drive. Rather, the party seeks to connect itself to a supporter community of both members and sympathisers.

In-person events achieve closer bonds between members, as multiple Flemish parliamentarians told me, through “cultivating camaraderie” and “friendship groups”. However, as friendships cannot be fostered between each VB supporter, virtual solutions have emerged. VB MP and social media coordinator Bart Claes explained to De Morgen: “In 2014, VB was nowhere to be found. Not in the media, nor in people’s minds. That is why we have put a lot of effort into building a community, a digital community.”

For VB, the party community is underpinned by a sense of exclusion. Bonds are formed by the idea that members are “pushed into the same corner” by the cordon sanitaire, an agreement between all other political parties to block VB from participation in government at any level.

Evolving Through Exclusion

VB representatives credit their interest in social media to exclusion from the mass media, as the party feels underrepresented in traditional mass media. Social media provides a direct form of communication with supporters.

However, since social media companies in the USA took action against former President Donald Trump, VB representatives express concerns about possible “censorship” on Facebook and Instagram. Given these threats, where next for VB and social media?

The party has begun diversifying the channels it uses, rather than turning away from digital organizing. For a recent protest, the party mobilised activists using WhatsApp groups, and they began a “VBTV” section on their YouTube channel. Leader Tom van Grieken experimented with TikTok, while another high-profile representative, Dries Van Langenhove, began using Telegram to “arm” himself against censorship. At the same time, in some parts of Flanders, such as party bastion Ninove, activists are exploring door-to-door campaigning and house visits.

The VB’s way forward is continued pairing of the local and personal with the virtual in its development of a 21st-century mass party.

Dr. Judith Sijstermans is the Populism in Action Project’s Belgium (Flanders) focused Research Fellow. You can follow her on Twitter here. 

Beyond Underrepresentation: Women’s Roles and Gender Politics in Flanders’ Populist Radical Right

by Dr. Judith Sijstermans

Populist radical right parties (PRRPs) have traditionally been the realm of men. Comparative studies have highlighted the underrepresentation of women, both in the parties and amongst their voters. Meanwhile, PRRP’s views on gender issues are more uniformly traditional than other parties on the right. On the other hand, Spierings and Zaslove found that the voting ‘gender gap’ is overstated and PRRPs ideological development over time may have begun to ‘demasculinize’ party programmes. Empirical studies of Bulgarian and Slovakian radical right parties argued that a focus on descriptive representation has obscured the substance of populist radical right parties’ work on women’s issues. Through these various lenses, this blog explores the role of gender in the Flemish populist radical right party Vlaams Belang (VB, Flemish Interest).

Identifying Women’s Activism

VB follows the patterns of PRRPs in having significantly fewer women than men in its ranks. Research published in 2010 showed that VB’s membership was 32% women, the lowest of any Flemish party. Correspondingly, just over one third of VB Parliamentarians are women. The party’s highest ranking executive board has 2 women out of 12 (16.7%) members.

When asked about gender in the party, the Federal Parliament group leader, Barbara Pas, has said: ‘I’ve always been a woman in a man’s world. I studied engineering and there the male-female ratio was a bit like in politics. It shouldn’t make a difference whether you are a man or a woman.’ Later in the same interview Pas goes on to acknowledge the constraints that weekend and evening-oriented work that comes with being an MP can put on women.

These time constraints might also obscure the day-to-day role women play. Coffe and Bolzendahl found that women were more likely to engage in ‘private activism’, including signing petitions, boycotting products for political reasons, and donating or raising money. VB local party life centres on each branch’s annual meal as well as other social activities such as breakfasts, barbecues, and family days. These informal and private types of political engagement are more difficult to document.

Scrinzi noted in a study of the Lega and Front National that women tended to refrain from referring to themselves as activists. Women were more likely to see their skills and work as part of wider relational and emotional care work rather than as part of party activism. Women’s roles in populist radical right parties, including VB, may be hidden from the eyes of political researchers since their activism is more likely to be private, informal, and downplayed.

Policy Moderation and Masculinity

Researchers have found that many PRRPs have begun to position themselves as the protectors of women and LGBTQ individuals. In VB, this has especially played out in rhetoric arguing against the ‘Islamisation’ of Flanders. The party’s leader in Antwerp, Sam van Rooy, wrote a book called For freedom, so against Islamisation. In an interview about the book, van Rooy argued: “Girls and women who really choose this themselves suffer from Stockholm Syndrome and raise a middle finger to our free society and to all the girls and women who are daily oppressed by means of the Islamic veil.”

A study of the relationship between conceptions of LGBT rights and ideas of nationhood in Flanders found that the VB were the most prominent proponents of ‘homonationalism.’ ‘Homonationalism’ refers to the way that LGBT rights are incorporated into predominantly Western understandings of the nation, premised on the exclusion of ethnic and religious ‘others’ who are seen as threatening to the LGBT community. The author quotes Van Rooy arguing, ‘I hear stories of young women, homosexuals and Jews who don’t dare to go to certain neighborhoods anymore…so we’ve already lost those neighborhoods to Islamic rules of behaviour. I want to fight that.’

Members of Vlaams Belang therefore portray themselves as defending Flemish societal norms, including in this case gender and LGBT equality. In this sense, while the VB adopts the language of social liberalism, they simultaneously employ an othering discourse towards Muslims, and particularly Muslim migrants, which is typical of the PRRP’s nativist ideologies. This approach maintains the party as the ‘masculine’ protector of women.

In the field of family policies, De Lange and Mugge’s 2015 analysis showed that the VB adjusted its policies over time. Whereas the party initially opposed divorce and pre-marital cohabitation, more recently it began to acknowledge difficulties in relationships, facilitate access to divorce and parenting support where necessary, and promote women’s participation in the workplace. In 2019, the VB’s party programme noted that the term ‘the family’ ‘should be interpreted much more broadly than the classical family of the 20th century.’

There has also been a moderation in the party’s use of masculinized images. Where the party used to position itself using images of boxing gloves and brooms (to ‘sweep away’ the competition) the party’s recent materials have focused on images of families and nostalgic, idyllic images of Flanders. One VB MP explained that the party had ‘put away the boxing gloves of the past’ and begun to emphasize ‘social policies.’ Here we can see some ‘demasculinization’ in the VB’s visual semantics.

Situating Populist Politics in a Man’s World

Whilst in this blog I’ve focused on the populist radical right, politics as a ‘man’s world’ is not exclusive to PRRPs. In fact, many similar patterns can be seen in other political parties. The VB’s nearest competitor, Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), is a centre-right party, which has accepted non-traditionalist views on gender equality and LGBT rights. However, the N-VA’s acceptance of these social changes was described by Abts et al. as ‘carefully managed’. Like VB, the N-VA’s approach to social change was one of ‘evolution rather than revolution.’

Furthermore, women were only slightly less represented in VB at local level than its centre-right counterpart the N-VA, with 34% women local executive members as opposed to 39% in the N-VA. In fact, in 2018, only 7% of N-VA branch leaders were women compared to 21% in VB.

N-VA leader Bart de Wever has also been quoted criticising the veil, in a manner similar to how the VB does. He has said: “Those same leftists who were lighting their bras on fire in May of 1968 are now embracing the veil as a symbol of equality…People want to destroy Christianity but accept everything when it comes to Islam.” This comparison corroborates one of Spierings and Zaslove findings. They argue: ‘it appears that PRR parties, with respect to sex and gender, are in many ways simply a more radical version of centre-right parties.’

While it makes sense to highlight the underrepresentation of women in populist radical right parties, it is important to recognise that this underrepresentation does not necessarily set these parties apart from others on the right. Hence treating PRRPs as abnormal is not conducive to better research. Furthermore, moving beyond descriptive criteria around gender to consider gendered activism, policies, and images in populist radical right parties may provide a more nuanced view of these presumed ‘men’s parties.’

Dr. Judith Sijstermans is the Populism in Action Project’s Flanders focused Research Fellow. Her Research looks at the region’s Vlaams Belang political party. You can follow Judith on Twitter here.

Populism and Sub-State Nationalism Intersect in Belgium’s Flanders

By Judith Sijstermans – PiAP Belgium (Flanders) focused Research Fellow. Originally written for the Center for Constitutional Change site:


When Flemish nationalism emerged in the 19th century the Flemish people — who comprised about 60% of the Belgian population — and language were excluded from public administration, the military, politics, law, education, and the media. Flanders was dominated by an agrarian way of life, while Wallonia grew through industrialisation.

The outcome was Flemish alienation from the centres of Belgian power. This “minoritized majority” mindset is the foundation of Flemish nationalist ideology today.

However, in practical terms, Flemish fortunes shifted significantly after World War II. The Flemish economy now outperforms Wallonia’s, following the decline of the Walloon coal and heavy industries. The Flemish nationalist message shifted from “poor Flanders” to a “nationalism of the rich” in which Flanders is portrayed as Wallonia’s “milk cow”. The Belgian state has decentralized, with significant powers devolved to the Flemish and Walloon governments.

Flemish sub-state nationalism is now also characterized by a populist turn, driven by the populist radical right and independence-seeking party, the Vlaams Belang (VB, Flemish Interest). In Belgium’s 2019 elections, the VB’s proportion of the vote rose more than 8% at the federal level and 12% in Flemish Parliament elections. The VB’s sub-state nationalist competitor, the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA, New Flemish Alliance), remains the largest party in Flanders. However, while it is predominantly a conservative sub-state nationalist party, the N-VA also incorporates populist messaging, particularly directed at Belgian government elites.

Flanders is not a prototypical case of a minority nationalist movement. It does not represent a minority, demographically or economically, and is increasingly identified by populist rather than autonomist viewpoints. In this blog, I further detail how the Flemish sub-state nationalist approach has incorporated populist narratives and delve into how this populist turn has also led to the adoption of an identitarian approach. In these ways, the Flemish nationalist movement is typical of other emerging patterns of European politics.

Adopting a Populist Sub-State Nationalist Narrative

Populism, academically and politically, has become an inescapable part of the political zeitgeist. For the sake of space and time, I adopt the dominant understanding of the term of populism from political scientist Cas Mudde: it is a thin-centred ideology concerned with the division between the “pure people” and “corrupt elite”. Populist rhetoric, precisely because of its thin centred nature, fits in smoothly with the nationalist ideologies.

Statements from both the N-VA and the VB show how advocacy for territorial autonomy can be supported by populist rhetoric. In response to the latest Belgian government formation, which kept both Flemish nationalist parties out, the N-VA placed themselves on the side of the “people”:

The N-VA will do everything we can from our political position during the coming legislature to protect the Flemish people as much as we can from the disastrous plans of this government.

While they raised issues around the legitimacy of the government, the party ultimately stuck to its conservative critique, particularly emphasizing opposition to new taxation.

The Vlaams Belang’s language has been more explicitly populist. The party called the new government an “undemocratic monster coalition” and critiqued it for increasing the number of government appointments, rather than being “among the people”. They emphasized that the government lacked a Flemish majority, a betrayal from “traditional parties” who “allowed themselves to be bribed for jobs”. For both the N-VA and the VB, one elite enemy is the Belgian state. However, for the the Vlaams Belang, there are others: it sees academics, teachers, journalists, and other media professionals as antagonistic to the people.

Globalization and global elites are also a target. For example, in the party’s membership magazine, VB leader Tom van Grieken criticized the UN’s Migration Pact as indicative of a wider problem:

These disconnected globalist elite do not stand alone. Because ivory towers don’t only stand in New York. They also stand in Europe. They also stand in Brussels…The one group is the left side—who eagerly welcome all these new foreign voters—and the other group are the neo-liberals who see this new wave of immigrants as an army of new cheap workers. These two groups get along so well that a clear new political fault line has been created. Namely on one side, left multiculturalists and liberal globalists (united in a coalition against our people) and on the other side patriots, the nationalists that defend ordinary people” (VB Magazine, January 2019).

With the increasing electoral power of the Vlaams Belang, sub-state nationalism becomes one part of the movement. However, it is clear that Flemish autonomy from the Belgian state is interwoven with an anti-elite search for autonomy from broader local and international “elites” who are portrayed as corrupt, anti-democratic, and in opposition to the Flemish volk (people).

An Identitarian Evolution For Flemish Cultural Nationalism

Just as the Flemish people are pitted against these elites, Flemish culture is pitted against a “liberal” or ‘left wing’ culture which is seen as being diffused through the media and education. The Vlaams Belang and the N-VA have both advocated the cutting of cultural subsidies, particularly for new or emerging projects. The parties were accused by left-wing Flemish counterparts of targeting funding that would support artists not engaging in ‘traditional’ Flemish art or working with Flanders’ migrant communities. One VB Parliamentarian, Klaas Slootmans, said, “We back the [N-VA led] government if it wants to cut back on experimental art that is good at spitting in the face of the Flemish.”

The Flemish Movement emerged initially in defence of the Dutch language. Early Flemish nationalists were middle-class intellectuals concerned with promoting the use of the Dutch language and using that language to defend the “spirit” of the Flemish people. In 2020, this linguistic nationalism is only one part of a wider nativist defense of Flemish culture.

The Vlaams Belang’s cultural nationalism has been supported by identitarian messages. The identitarian movement is concerned with the defence of a particular “European” identity based on an imagined historical cultural landscape which was homogenous. Identitarian groups describe migration as a “replacement” of white Europeans with migrants and particularly criticize Muslim migrants. The movement is characterized by the use of social media and YouTube, and by a purposeful ambiguity about its goals.

The identitarian approach to Flemish nationalism has been spearheaded by VB MP Dries van Langenhove, who founded the right-wing Flemish youth group Schild en Vrienden (Shield and Friends). He has promoted a nostalgic nationalism, as in this March 2019 interview:

The feeling of guilt that has been fed to us since May 1968, and that every European has been carrying since World War Two may well push Europe into the abyss definitively…it ensures that citizens everywhere in Western Europe no longer put their country and people first.

Vlaams Belang politicians use the language of “making Flanders great again” and supported Donald Trump. Party leader Tom van Grieken tweeted, “The rise of Trump is not an isolated phenomenon. In Europe too, more and more voters want real change.”

In his work on “master frames”, Jens Rydgren showed that the radical right messaging of the 1970s and 1980s did not emerge independently in each European country. Rather, it diffused transnationally, particularly from France’s Front National. The VB’s founding members had a close relationship with the FN and adopted the master frame. The current identitarian messages and outreach to the Trump movement shows that this transnational diffusion of radical right nationalist narratives continues today.

Alternative transnational narratives about Flemish sub-state nationalism also emerge. The N-VA has continued to ally itself with sub-state nationalists in Catalonia, showing support during and after the Catalan independence referendum. Most recently, the N-VA’s Flemish Minister President Jan Jambon spoke out against sanctions against Catalonia’s President Quim Torra. The Vlaams Belang also looks to other sub-state nationalist movements, with representatives expressing interest in the Scottish independence process.

But ultimately, it is the Vlaams Belang’s particular brand of nationalism which is on the rise in Flanders. In an October poll, the VB gained 27.1% of the support compared to the N-VA’s 22.2%. The party’s populist narratives link Flemish autonomy with a wider search for autonomy from globalization, and the expanded scope of Flemish nationalism is also in the Flemish Movement’s promotions of different forms of cultural nationalism and nativism.

The Flemish Movement is not prototypical of sub-state nationalism. However, examining the evolution of the Flemish Movement provides an insight into complex intersections between nationalism, populism, and nativism which are increasingly relevant beyond Flanders.

Vlaams Belang’s Populists Seek Lead of Belgium’s “Flemish Front”

by Judith Sijstermans (PiAP Belgium [Flanders] focused Research Fellow – this post originally appeared on EA Worldview


Last week leaders from seven of Belgium’s political parties burned the midnight oil to confirm a governing coalition, almost 500 days after the country’s last election.

That election yielded polarized results in which French-speaking Wallonia voted left and Flanders voted right-wing and separatist. The final coalition, bridging that divide, brings together Flemish and Walloon liberals, socialists, Greens, and the Flemish Christian Democrats.

However, it isn’t only coalition talks that kept Belgium’s mainstream party leaders awake at night. Opposition to the new government has begun to ramp up and has been particularly fervent from Flanders’ populist radical right and independentist party, the Vlaams Belang (VB, Flemish Interest).

The party depicts the new governing coalition as unrepresentative of Flanders and its right-leaning electorate, given that the government has a Flemish minority and excludes Flanders’ two largest parties: the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA) and the VB.

The VB amassed large crowds on September 27 in a “protest drive” with cars full of supporters driving to Brussels from Flemish provinces. The event rounded off a week of action, including a blockade of a key Brussels street. This earlier event was led by VB representatives and saw MEP and former leader Gerolf Annemans detained by police.

The week of action displayed the VB’s ability to activate not only party members but informal party supporters. VB leaders at the rally emphasized their calls for a united “Flemish front” against the government. By doing so, they are leveraging their mobilization of supporters for a stronger position against both the governing political parties and their closest Flemish competitor, the N-VA.

MOBILIZING MEMBERS AND THE MASSES

By mobilizing a reported 15,000 supporters at the “protest drive”, the VB demonstrates that it can meet challenges which have affected political parties generally and the VB specifically.

The VB was reported in 2018 to have just over 18,000 members. This was considerably less than most Belgian parties, but it was a small increase over 2013, while mainstream Belgian parties’ memberships continued to fall.

Amid a series of significant electoral swings since 2000, the VB must seek ways to connect with and hold onto informal new supporters. To this end, it has become social media savvy, building up almost 600,000 likes on Facebook (200,000 more than the N-VA).

Party representatives and organizers note that the majority of party communications occur on social media, targeted at this wider audience rather than solely members. At the September 27 rally, VB leader Tom van Grieken emphasized the party’s wider audience: “This meeting is already larger than just a meeting of the Vlaams Belang. You can feel it. This is growing into a movement.”

Supporter mobilization is sometimes hindered by the overall societal decline of organizational membership and the division between online and in-person activism. In interviews, party representatives reported that getting supporters out from behind computer and mobile phone screens was a challenge, with a reduction in local events, in part because members could easily access information online. Others explained that young VB voters, whose support aided the party’s 2019 election success, were not engaging with the party through in-person campaign activities. So, as well as expanding its online presence, the VB is seeking to support local structures by establishing branches in municipalities currently without one, and providing these branches with mentorship by MPs, and allowing them to maintain all local membership money.

The September 27 rally exemplifies the VB’s two-pronged approach of developing local structures and social media. The event was promoted on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, with professionally-produced videos featuring figures like van Grieken. Through these online platforms, organizers encouraged attendees to add the party’s phone number on Whatsapp which then directed participants to local meeting points. By transitioning social media to more personal communication, the party mobilized informal supporters. In a local context, organizers could connect with supporters personally rather than only coming together in anonymity in Brussels. The national party maintained centralized control of the process and a national message with the hashtag #NietMijnRegering (Not My Government).

LEVERAGING MASS MOBILIZATION

The Vlaams Belang’s mobilization, in opposition of the new government, was not aimed only at those 15,000 attendees or at the coalition parties. A demonstration targeting the new government was also trying to attract voters from the N-VA.

Van Grieken publicly invited high-profile N-VA MP Theo Francken to give a speech at the rally. Francken responded with measured support:

I respect everyone’s way of protesting against a government without democratic legitimacy in Flanders. I’ll keep my firepower for next week’s debate in the Chamber….Good luck.

However, N-VA leader Bart De Wever said of a possible coalition with the Vlaams Belang, “It is not exactly an attractive prospect, because you are dealing with an extreme right-wing party that is not immediately trying to moderate itself.”

At the rally, the VB explicitly appealed to members of other parties to join a “Flemish front”. MP Dries van Langenhoven noted, “Welcome to all loyal militants….But also welcome to everyone who comes out on the street for the first time, to the many N-VA supporters and Open Vld and CD&V supporters present here, it is nice to see that the Flemish front forms when the need is great.”

Van Grieken also called for support from, and simultaneously criticized, N-VA leader De Wever:

Let’s bury the hatchet. Change can only happen if Flemish people work together….

We are not without fault either, but scolding Vlaams Belangers will not help anyone. You have compared us to turds lying in front of someone’s door. I was called a buffoon… Dear Bart, in this way, we are not going to get there.

These overtures to the N-VA and to N-VA supporters position the VB, rather than its larger and more mainstream competitor, as the leader of the Flemish Front. It also hints at the mobilization of action by the VB, not the N-VA, in advance of the government’s formation.

These overtures to the N-VA and appeals to N-VA supporters position the VB, rather than its larger and more mainstream competitor, as the leaders of the Flemish Front. On 27 September, the VB put its strategies of local organizing and social media to the test. The success of the rally provides an indication of how the VB, not the N-VA, are able to mobilize action from Flemish nationalist and right wing voters.

Despite the ostensible focus on opposing the new government, the VB leveraged its ability to mobilize supporters to make a bolder claim: staking the VB’s place as the leading voice of Flemish nationalism.

Video: Understanding Right-Wing Populism in Belgium

This post originally appeared on EA Wordview


Scott Lucas talks with the Populism in Action Project’s Judith Sijstermans about right-wing populism in Belgium. How is the Flemish Interest (Vlaams Belang) party seeking to expand its support in Flanders and across the country?

Before the interview, Scott chats with PiAP’s Stijn van Kessel about how Black Lives Matter is influencing the approach of right-wing populist parties, including in The Netherlands.

A “Great Identity Crisis” Complicates Belgium’s Colonial and Racial Reckoning

By Judith Sijstermans (PiAP Belgium focused Research Fellow) – this post originally appeared on EA Worldview 


In Belgium, a petition to remove statues of King Leopold II has accrued more than 80,000 signatures. In response to this and the Black Lives Matter protests across the country, Belgium’s King Philippe expressed his regrets for the “wounds of the past”, breaking the Royal Family’s 60-year silence on the atrocities committed in the Congo under Leopold’s rule.

Belgium’s populist radical right party, Vlaams Belang (VB, Flemish Interest), has distanced itself from the King’s statement and the BLM movement. The party supports Flemish independence from the Belgian state. As VB member of the Belgian Parliament, Wouter Vermeersch, explained to Politico: “The Flemish people had nothing to do with Belgium’s colonial history.”

In the reckoning over Belgium’s colonial past, Vlaams Belang is positioning itself at the intersection of the ideologies of sub-state nationalism, republicanism, and populism.

Vlaams Belang was the second-largest Flemish party in Belgium’s 2019 elections, with success built on its critique of Belgium’s migration policies. The party regained issue ownership over immigration after pressuring its closest competitor, right-wing Flemish nationalist Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), to leave the ruling Belgian coalition in response to the UN Migration Pact.

Vlaams Belang suggests that BLM is a “projection” of American problems and emphasizes that people should be proud of Flanders’ “unique and high-quality civilization”. They argue that criticism of colonialism is hypocritical, unfairly targeting Western civilization without considering human rights violations outside the Western world.

The Layers of Past and Present

In the last five years, VB’s leadership has begun to moderate its language. Individuals in the party have been more outspoken over Black Lives Matter. Long-time figurehead Filip Dewinter wrote on Twitter:

They want to make #Europe #Africa….Anyone who, as a foreigner, thinks that our country is racist and colonialist, should return to his country of origin where everything is better.

But the party’s approach to Belgium’s colonial history is more nuanced than an emphasis on criticizing how migration has been managed in the country.

Its stance intersects with the communitarian divisions between Flanders and Wallonia in Belgian politics. The VB originally emerged from the Flemish nationalist community, and support for Flemish independence from the Belgian state is still one of its key policies.

MP Vermeersch noted in another interview: “This is part of the history of Belgium,” arguing that it is important to recognize this history rather than erasing it. Underpinning the statement is an important implication: this is not the history of Flanders.

Furthermore, Vlaams Belang is a republican party and rejects the monarchy. The latter, the VB has argued, should apologize for colonization: not the Belgian people, “let alone the Flemish people”. Vermeersch continues, in the Politico interview: “It was the royal family and the French-speaking haute finance who were responsible for this. If someone has to pay for mistakes in the past, it’s them.”

VB’s response thus brings together various elites — the monarchy, the French-speaking economic elite, the Belgian state — and places the responsibility for Belgium’s colonial past squarely on their shoulders. This highlights the way in which the VB mobilizes a populist discourse of the “people versus the elite” and seeks to be the mouthpiece for those they identify as “the people”.

Before this discussion, political elites had been muted about Belgium’s colonial history. Historian Idesbald Goddeeris explains that this silence results in part from the “great identity crisis” of the country.

With the rise of the Flemish nationalist N-VA since 2009 and the re-emergence of the VB since 2018, criticisms of Belgium’s colonial past “can easily be interpreted as criticism of Belgium as a whole”. Speaking out on the issue carries particular sensitivities for political elites, from across the ideological spectrum, who are navigating the country’s communitarian divides.

Debates around Belgium’s colonial past are shaped by this complicated set of dynamics. They serve as a reminder that the ideologies of populist radical right parties in Europe should not be reduced to nativism or criticism of immigration policies. Rather, Vlaams Belang’s fundamental tradition of republicanism and Flemish nationalism builds a more complex, layered idea of who “the people” are.

A Starter Library on Populism

By PiAP’s Adrian Favero, Niko Hatakka, Judith Sijstermans, Mattia Zulianello – this piece originally appeared on EA Worldview


We asked each of the Research Fellows on the Populism in Action Project to give us opening recommendations to learn about populism, populist parties, and the future of European politics and society.

This is their Starter’s Library:

Dr. Adrian Favero, Switzerland focused Research Fellow

Nicole Loew and Thorsten Fass (2019) “Between Thin- and Host-ideologies: How Populist Attitudes Interact with Policy Preferences in Shaping Voting Behaviour,” Representation

Loew and Fass, from the Freie Universität Berlin, explores the demand side of left-wing and right-wing populism in Germany. They focus on voters for the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) and Die Linke (Left Party), applying the ideational approach to populism as a framework for their research.

The study considers the complex interaction between populist attitudes, policy preferences, and voter choice. Loew and Fass build an analysis derived from the literature on host ideologies, such as socialism and nationalism, that influence voting behavior.

In their conclusion, they outline convincingly that on the demand side of politics, populist attitudes and strong policy preferences lead to votes for populist parties on either the left or the right. Yet voters with moderate policy concerns and strong populist attitudes are still more likely to vote for populist parties because these attitudes substitute for policy preferences.

The article sheds light on a group of voters who are less driven by policy preferences than they are motivated by populism itself. If this is true across the nation, populist parties can rely on either policies or populist attitudes as a driver to increase their vote share.

Shelley Boulianne, Karolina Koc-Michalska, and Bruce Bimber (2020) “Right-Wing Populism, Social Media and Echo Chambers in Western Democracies”, New Media & Society

Boulianne, Koc-Michalska, and Bruce Bimber explore the effect of self-exposure to social media–based “echo chambers” on the rise of right-wing populism.

Based on a large-scale survey of 4500 respondents conducted in France, the UK, and the US, the authors assess citizens’ experiences of echo-chamber effects and support for populist parties. The novelty of this strand of research is the study’s comparative approach, which rules out country-specific explanations such as economics and immigration.

The study also assesses the polarizing effect of echo chambers and polarization’s link to left-wing or right-wing ideologies. The authors conclude that exposure to selective information in social media echo chambers does not predict support for right-wing parties as opposed to other parties. However, they find an echo chamber effect in the context of offline discussions with like-minded people, which is associated with support for right-wing populists.

The findings challenge the common assumption that digital echo chambers increase the propensity to endorse right-wing populism.

Laurent Bernhard and Hanspeter Kriesi (2019) “Populism in Election Times: A Comparative Analysis of 11 Countries in Western Europe”, West European Politics

Bernhard and Kriesi, through a content analysis of press releases in 11 countries in Western Europe, offers an interesting comparative analysis of the populist ideology expressed by parties during election campaigns.

They evaluate three types of appeals: people-centrism, anti-elitism, and demands for popular sovereignty. They not only look at populist parties from both the radical right and the radical left, but also at the division of issue dimensions, such as culture and economy, in northern and southern Europe. The article combines quantitative text analysis with qualitative examples, providing the reader with helpful illustrations of the national context.

The authors conclude that mainstream parties are less prone to rely on populist rhetoric. Intriguingly, this challenges the assumption that mainstream parties adjust to populist strategies exhibited by the far left and right. This description of gradual populism among “extreme parties” is important because it highlights the importance of nuanced classification.

A Swiss People’s Party poster in 2016: "Finally Create Security"

A Swiss People’s Party poster in 2016: “Finally Create Security” (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

Dr. Niko Hatakka, Finland focused Research Fellow

Salla-Maaria Laaksonen, Mervi Pantti, and Gavan Titley (2020) “Broadcasting the Movement and Branding Political Microcelebrities: Finnish Anti-Immigration Video Practices on YouTube”, Journal of Communication

The authors analyze the usage of YouTube by Finnish anti-immigration movements after 2015.

Despite online platforms having significant effects on the style, contents, and form of populist radical right activism, in and parallel to the Finns Party, specific Finnish online movements have rarely been researched empirically. The study is based on qualitative content analysis of the actors, genres, functions, styles, framings, and strategies employed in YouTube videos affiliated to two separate movements, Rajat Kiinni and Suomen Kansa Ensin. The qualitative analysis is preceded and eloquently informed by a simple, yet effective, network analysis.

The paper highlights the role of microcelebrities as pivotal nodes in the movement’s network. Without explicitly stating the outcome, the authors display and discuss how YouTube’s properties and functions affect the process of empty signifiers uniting hybrid political movements.

Michael Hameleers and Rens Vliegenthart (2020) “The Rise of a Populist Zeitgeist? A Content Analysis of Populist Media Coverage in Newspapers Published between 1990 and 2017”, Journalism Studies

Hameleers and Vliegenhart’s article contributes to the discussion on the mainstreaming of populism as a thin-centered ideology in Western Europe.

Focusing on a 28-year period in the Netherlands, the authors use a dictionary-based approach to analyze the temporal prevalence of populist communication in newspapers. Measuring the number of articles which contain pre-selected words that are indicative of four selected elements of populist communication, the study portrays how people-centric and anti-elitist communication has become more prevalent over time.

The paper is the first attempt to use a word-based automated analysis of populist communication on a longer time scale. Because of its single country focus, it effectively proves an outlet-independent increase in the elements of populist communication measured.

Future studies seeking to pursue this method will have to resolve the problem of being able to use it reliably in a comparative setting. The difficulty of this task raises interesting questions about whether the thin-ideological understanding of the different elements of populism, for example viewing “the people” as the “ordinary people”, corresponds to the reality of how populist mobilizations are enabled by a staggeringly vast array of signifiers.

Jonathan Dean and Bice Maiguascha (2020) “Did Somebody Say Populism? Towards a Renewal and Reorientation of Populism Studies”, Journal of Political Ideologies

The mainstream of populism research is strongly rooted in the ideational approach, which regards populism as a set of ideas or a thin-centered ideology. So it is refreshing to read articles that engage with the “other” approach, the Laclaudian theory of populism.

Dean and Maiguascha critically analyze the strengths and weaknesses of both theoretical approaches and encourage populism scholars to critically evaluate whether their use of the concepts are useful. Specifically they urge scholars to ask whether their selected definition of populism can both feed into anti-populist rhetoric and provide momentum for “populist hype”.

The authors suggest that more scholarly attention should be directed to populism not as a concept but as a signifier that has potential to be more political than analytical, especially outside of academia. A good first step will be a more conscious effort by scholars to recognize and be transparent about the epistemic limits of our definitions and operationalization of “populist ideas”, “populist style”, and “populist logic”.

Referring to only one of these distinct elements comprehensively as “populism” makes little sense and enflames disputes between the different populism research communities. Further work to combine the theoretical aspects of the different sub-disciplines of populism research should be encouraged, and this article is an excellent contribution to such a pursuit.

Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho

Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho

Dr. Judith Sijstermans, Belgium focused Research Fellow

Léonie de Jonge (2019). “The Populist Radical Right and the Media in the Benelux: Friend or Foe?”, The International Journal of Press/Politics

De Jonge’s work focuses on Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg and ties into the case of the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest, VB), one of four cases being studied by the Populism in Action Project.

Drawing on evocative interviews with media practitioners, de Jonge argues that the media in the Netherlands and Flanders have taken a more accommodating approach to right wing populist parties, in comparison with that of the media in Wallonia and Luxembourg. These approaches are shaped by mass media market dynamics in each country and the nature of their political systems.

De Jonge suggests that differing media responses have shaped the populist parties’ electoral trajectories. This speaks to an interesting dynamic within Belgium, where Flanders and Wallonia differ significantly in terms of populist radical right success. This has been further studied by Hilde Coffé.

It may seem incongruous to include a work so focused on the media in this review. However, in my early interviews with VB representatives, the media has been a pressing issue. The party seeks out support on social media to bypass what they see as a widespread “cordon mediatique” in the Belgian press. De Jonge discusses her work in a podcast (in Dutch).

Menno Fenger (2018). “The Social Policy Agendas of Populist Radical Right Parties in Comparative Perspective”, Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy

It is a stretch to say, as Fenger does, that “there has been only limited research on the attitudes of these populist radical right parties towards the welfare state”. However, the novelty in this article’s approach is its broad empirical comparison between six populist radical right parties.

The inclusion of Donald Trump as a populist radical right figure is controversial but interesting. Fenger shows a clear gap between the social policies portrayed by Trump and those of his European counterparts, despite “some European leaders highlight[ing] their association with the Trump Administration”. The strategy of adopting Trump’s language has emerged in the Flemish Interest, making it useful to include Trump here, if only to highlight how few substantive similarities exist despite the professed symbolic links.

The article raises more questions than it answers providing a starting point for further research. Why are some parties, as Fenger says, “dogmatic” whilst others are “pragmatic”? Should we include Trump in future analyses? What causes similarities in Dutch and Flemish approaches to social policy? Studies of PRRPs rarely cover such broad ground, and given the comparative aims of our own project, this article is a useful reference point.

Agnes Akkerman, Andrzej Zaslove, and Bram Spruyt (2017). “‘We the People’ or ‘We the Peoples’? A Comparison of Support for the Populist Radical Right and Populist Radical Left in the Netherlands”, Swiss Political Science Review

The authors of this article compare supporters of a populist radical right and populist radical left party in the Netherlands, the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom, PVV) and the Socialistische Partij (Socialist Party, SP) respectively. They test hypotheses on the attitudes that unite and divide these parties’ voters.

Populism in Activism Project co-investigator Stijn van Kessel has suggested that the SP has stepped away from its populist rhetoric. However, studying populism in parties on either side of the ideological spectrum is a useful way to move past preconceived notions about populism. The authors argue that, given their faith in the “people”, “a populist vote may not only be a vote against but also for something”. Both parties’ supporters hold populist attitudes and low levels of trust, but what supporters of each party are voting for differs.

Tying into Fenger’s discussions of social policy, the authors posit a certain symmetry in the welfare policies of PRR and PRL parties, hypothesizing that supporters of both support more social security benefits. However, their findings do not support this.

For those with an interest in this dynamic, other scholars have delved more deeply into the links between economic positions and populist attitudes in voters including in this article by Van Kessel and Steven Van Hauwaert.

Poster of Belgium's Vlaams Belang party: "Thanks Voters!"

Poster of Belgium’s Vlaams Belang party: “Thanks Voters!”

Dr. Mattia Zulianello, Italy focused Research Fellow

Lenka Buštíková and Petra Guasti (2019). “The State as a Firm: Understanding the Autocratic Roots of Technocratic Populism”, East European Politics and Societies

Buštíková and Guasti provide an excellent and intriguing analysis of technocratic populism, a little-studied manifestation of the populist phenomenon. Focusing on the case of Czech Republic since 1989, the authors ground a solid empirical analysis within a valuable theoretical framework, which greatly enhances our understanding of the many populist actors that do not fit the typical left-right categorization.

Technocratic populism is exemplified in the contemporary context by Andrej Babiš’ ANO 2011. This is the leading force in today’s Czech government, and “strategically uses the appeal of technocratic competence and weaponizes numbers to deliver a populist message”, which emerges “at critical junctures as an alternative to the ideology of liberal democratic pluralism”.

The authors argue that the broader appeal of technocratic populism in comparison with economic and nativist forms of populism, as well as its claim to rule in the name of “the people” on the grounds of technical expertise, make it a “sophisticated threat to liberal democracy”. In particular, by combining an emphasis on technocratic expertise with a people-centric message, this form of populism may lead to democratic backsliding by fueling civic apathy and by providing political actors with a master frame to “legitimize” concentrations of power.

Luigi Curini (2019). “The Spatial Determinants of the Prevalence of Anti-Elite Rhetoric Across Parties”, West European Politics

Spatial analyses of political competition are a true political science classic, and this article by Luigi Curini shows the utility and elegance of such approaches to the study of key aspects of contemporary party politics.

Using data from the 2014 Chapel Hill Expert Survey data, the author conceptualizes anti-elitism “as a non-policy vote-winning strategy” that has “quasi-valence” features, because they can be positively evaluated by a wide pool of voters. In light of such properties, anti-elitism is understood as a strategy that can potentially be used by any political actor with the goal of increasing their electoral appeal.

Curini’s analysis suggests that the decision of political parties to focus on anti-elitism “does not depend entirely on some inner identity; it also depends on the spatial environment in which they compete”. Indeed, this paper reveals that a given party has a higher incentive to resort to anti-elitism if it is “ideologically ‘squeezed’ among adjacent parties”. Most notably, in such a context, focusing on anti-elitism may help a political party differentiate itself from its proximate competitors in the eyes of the electorate.

Sergiu Gherghina and Sorina Soare (2019). “Electoral Performance Beyond Leaders? The Organization of Populist Parties in Post-Communist Europe”, Party Politics

Gherghina and Sorina Soare offer an excellent example of how to study the impact of leadership and organizational features on the electoral performance of populist parties.

Grounded in the qualitative analysis of primary and secondary sources, the paper focuses on three cases from post-communist Europe that present considerable differences in terms of their electoral fate: the Bulgaria Without Censorship Party, the Party of Socialists from the Republic of Moldova, and the People’s Party-Dan Diaconescu of Romania.

Rather than treating leadership and organization as a single variable, as it is often the case in the literature, the authors operate a useful and meaningful distinction between the two in their analysis. This approach makes their contribution of interest to comparativists and to scholars of populism.

Most notably, the analysis reveals that personalization and concentration of power in the hands of charismatic leaders is not sufficient to achieve electoral survival. This paper highlights that endogenous factors are important in the decline of populist parties, especially if they do not develop proper organizational structures and rely instead on the personality of their leaders.

Coronavirus Brings Rare Unity Among Switzerland’s Parties

by Adrian Favero (PiAP Switzerland focused Research Fellow) This post originally appeared on EA Worldview as part of a series of analyses from the Populism in Action Project on the effect of Coronavirus on populism and politics in Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, and Finland.


Switzerland is one of the countries most affected by Coronavirus. While the situation is not as severe as in neighboring Italy, as of April 3 the Swiss had almost 600 fatalities and almost 20,000 confirmed cases.

In mid-March, because of the “rapidly worsening” outbreak, both chambers of Parliament interrupted their session and the Federal Council declared an “extraordinary situation” under the Epidemics Act.

Federal Government in Charge

The Epidemics Act has been in force since January 1, 2016. It distinguishes between three situations, affecting the division of responsibility between the confederation and the cantons.

In a “normal” situation, the cantons are generally in charge to enact measures that can prevent and control transmissible diseases. In a “particular” and especially in an “extraordinary” situation, the Federal Council allocates more responsibilities to itself. It may take measures which it considers indispensable without consultation of Parliament or the cantons.

Using this authority, the Federal Council declared an official state of emergency until April 19.

In a decentralized country such as Switzerland, the federal government’s invocation of extensive and exclusive power may create much controversy. So to what extent has Swiss democracy been infected by Coronavirus?

The answer is: not much so far. The Federal Council has more power but it strictly acts within the limits of the Constitution. Under Article 185, the government may issue ordinances and rulings to counter existing or imminent threats of serious disruption to public order or internal and external security.

Unlike countries such as Hungary and Poland, the situation is not leading to extraordinary changes to the country’s political system and an unprecedented centralization of power. The Federal Council’s authority is temporary. If the so-called emergency decrees last longer than six months, Parliament will have to approve an extension.

What About the Parties?

Political parties in Switzerland may react to Coronavirus by promoting their agendas or by positioning themselves as responsible players. My colleague Judith Sijstermans, in her work on Belgium, has highlighted how the right-wing populist Vlaams Belang has used the crisis as a window of opportunity to advance policy goals and justify key ideological viewpoints.

See also: Coronavirus Shapes Belgium’s Government and Populist Opposition

In Switzerland, the political dynamic is a bit different. On the same day as the declaration of an “extraordinary situation” and state of emergency, all parties issued a joint statement in which they declared that they would “stand united and unreservedly behind the Federal Council”. Quoting the unofficial traditional Swiss motto, “One For All – All For One”, most parties pulled together in resolute unity, unequivocally supporting the government’s measures. The populist Swiss People’s Party SVP is the only party so far which, while supporting the joint statement, denounced “shortcomings in the government’s crisis management” that have to be corrected immediately.

Trust in the Government appears to be widespread at the moment, with the members of the legislative organs deferring to the executive in convening an extraordinary session of Parliament. Some parties avoided issuing public statements, with the Social Democrats welcoming the opportunity to meet to create legal certainty and preserve democracy.

Despite their criticism of the government’s crisis management, the SVP did not seize the opportunity to hold the Federal Council accountable and suggested a later meeting, on condition that the government ends the state of emergency. The party called the extraordinary session “unnecessary and irresponsible”, while accepting the government’s assumption of more power during the “extraordinary situation”.

Most parties are still issuing statements for political life after the crisis. They still have to craft long-term strategies on topics which concern their core ideological stances over the economy, society, and security. Nevertheless, the tone of these messages is relatively moderate and largely free of personal attacks.

One For All – All For One?

So why are the parties more measured in bringing in their own demands, while at the same time supporting the Federal Council’s ordinances and rulings?

First, in the current crisis the population yearns for unity and is rallying behind the political leadership. The Federal Council has delivered so far in its response, and many party representativesSwiss citizensbusiness leaders, and analysts attest to its effectiveness.

This has made it easier for parties to agree that now is not the time for fierce political competition but for fostering solidarity and trust in the government. Moreover, politicizing the crisis could be detrimental for parties and would not be appreciated by the public.

Second, four of the five largest parties are represented in government. This grand coalition is working well together, and the parties have no reason to attack individual Councillors. The rather harmonic situation is enhanced by lack of an opposition party which would use the crisis for political gains.

Switzerland has little tradition of parliamentary opposition, and some representatives say it is unbecoming to criticize the government right now. Most parties agree that confidence in authority is the imperative of the hour, and any critique can wait until after the crisis.

Pragmatic solutions have replaced ideological disputes. At least for the time being, populist rhetoric and political attacks have given way to a rare effort to achieve unity and solidarity.

Coronavirus Shapes Belgium’s Government and Populist Opposition

By Judith Sijstermans (PiAP Belgium focused Research Fellow) – this piece originally appeared on EA Worldview


Amid the Coronavirus pandemic, acting Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès has formed an emergency government with full powers, including further authority in the emergency.

The minority government received support from nine out of twelve Belgian parties in the federal Chamber of Representatives on Tuesday. Only Flemish nationalist party the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), left wing party the Partij van de Arbeid (PVDA), and the right-wing populist party Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest, VB) objected.

On the surface, this is a show of unity in the Belgian Government. But a deeper look at the state of play and the VB’s opposition uncovers shaky political ground.

Maneuvers over a Government

Belgium has been without a fully-empowered administration since the May 2019 elections, given their mixed results. These not only exacerbated the difference between the Flemish and Walloon regions of the country, but also repudiated the sitting government and punished its parties, Mouvement Reformateur (MR), Open VLD, and Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams (CD&V). The vote share of the N-VA, which left the government over disputes about the UN Migration Pact, was significantly reduced.

During negotiations, the outgoing government remained as a caretaker administration. Over the weekend of March 14, with the outbreak of Coronavirus and the need for urgent measures, chatter began about an emergency government. All party leaders, except those of the Vlaams Belang, discussed the possibility.

Until that weekend, government “formateurs”, responsible for negotiating a coalition, were still considering many coalition options. The leading option on the table at the time was a “Vivaldi” administration (because its four components represent the composer’s Four Seasons): Francophone socialists, liberals, and Greens and Flemish socialists, liberals, Greens, and Christian Democrats. However, after a long series of attempted negotiations, the only possible arrangement was to further empower the caretaker government.

See also Belgium’s Populism and Polarization: Europe in Miniature?

Coronavirus and Competence

While the news cycle and politics are consumed with Covid-19, time has not stopped. N-VA leader Bart de Wever forecast, “There won’t be much to argue over the next few months. The question is: how do you prepare for peace?”

Flanders’ populist radical right party Vlaams Belang is not waiting for the end of the crisis to push against the government. And it has backing: in a poll commissioned by Belgian news outlets and released on 14 March, the VB is the clear Flemish winner with 28% of the vote. The N-VA suffers the biggest losses, polling 5% below their May 2019 electoral results.

Because of a cordon sanitaire upheld by all other Belgian parties since 1989, the negotiations to organize an emergency government did not include VB. But in May 2019, the party came the closest in its history to governing at the highest level. There were discussions to form a government with N-VA leader de Wever, and VB leader Tom van Grieken met the Belgian King.

Since autumn 2019, the VB has used the rhetoric of “Mission 2024”, seeking to become the largest Flemish party at the next elections, which would give them the right to be the first party to begin negotiations in Flanders. In their push against the cordon sanitaire and their opposition to the emergency government, Van Grieken wrote an open letter to Wilmès this weekend:

I do not agree with the fact that you, even today, divide citizens into first and second class citizens just because they voted for the “wrong” party. I hope that you withdraw your heartless decision and that the next meeting does involve the country’s second largest party.

Coronavirus provides an opportunity for the Vlaams Belang to project its ability to make policy, to argue that it is ready for the transition from an opposition to a governing party. This is the theme of leader Van Grieken’s new book, released on March 11th, En nu is het aan ons (“And now it is up to us”).

Since the 2019 elections the party has slowly been building up its staff resources. These have focused on policy experts, reflected in a new structure linking staff across the party and Belgium’s different legislative bodies.

In the case of Covid-19, the party has sought best practice and pointed at South Korea and Singapore as examples of good governance. It has criticized Belgium’s acting government and urged more radical measures more quickly. The party proposed a committee to scrutinize the government’s actions to ensure that the “coronavirus does not become a corona-coup”.

Gerolf Annemans, VB MEP and former leader, explained on Twitter:

This is a glorified coup by Magnette [leader of the Parti Socialiste] to push through his Vivaldi construction. Abusing the Corona crisis to try to silence the opposition. One of the most outrageous manoeuvres ever seen. Why, N-VA?

“I Told You So”

Vlaams Belang has used the virus to validate many of its key ideological stances: anti-immigration, law and order policies, and sub-state nationalism. Closing the borders has been celebrated and the party has urged further action, such as placing soldiers at the border. Long-time VB figurehead Filip Dewinter tweeted, when a terror suspect was arrested by border control:

Apparently it takes a Corona crisis to make clear that controlled borders are necessary and useful: we keep out intruders (corona, illegal immigrants, drug dealers…) and the bad guys (terrorists, criminals …) in — behind bars!

The party’s representatives have pointed to the perceived unfair distribution of health care resources between Flanders and Wallonia, criticized China for “causing” the Coronavirus crisis, and pinned unrest on the streets and in stores on young migrants.

The Covid-19 crisis, alongside long-term government deadlock and recent polls, provides a window of opportunity for the VB. The party’s framing of the crisis reflects both long-term policy goals and an accelerating push towards breaking Belgium’s cordon sanitaire.

In the time of Coronavirus, governments around the world have sought to suspend political conflict in the name of unity. But for the VB, pressure on the government remains crucial.

Belgium’s Populism and Polarization: Europe in Miniature?

by Judith Sijstermans (PiAP Belgium focused Research Fellow) – this post was initially published on EA WorldView


With last week’s appointment of “caretaker” Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès, Belgium has refocused attention on its political stalemate.

Belgium’s first female Prime Minister was appointed after her predecessor Charles Michel took up the Presidency of the European Council. She faces a difficult situation, with her party Mouvement Reformateur (MR) losing ground in May’s elections and giving her little political leverage.

The ongoing lack of a government has left Belgium’s growing budget deficit in limbo, drawing admonishment from international institutions. Wilmès soon lamented the lack of urgency in negotiations between the two parties most likely to establish a coalition administration, the Flemish Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA) and the Francophone Parti Socialiste (PS).

The stalled process to form a Belgian government often feel like “another crisis, and another compromise“. In 2011, Belgium famously (or infamously) broke the record for the longest time spent without a government: 541 days. It is now been more than 150 days since Belgium’s May 2019 elections, with another vacuum amid longer and longer negotiation times for government formation.

But this is not just a Belgian story. It is a demonstration of politics across Europe.

Modernising and Contagious Populism

The biggest story of Belgium’s 2019 elections was the unprecedented success of the radical right populist party, the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest, VB). The party took second place in vote share across Belgium, behind only fellow Flemish nationalist and right wing party N-VA.

The VB’s proportion of the vote rose more than 8% in federal elections and 12% in Flemish Parliament elections. In the federal elections, VB won 11.9% of the vote (810,177) as compared to the N-VA’s 16% (1,086,787) and the Parti Socialiste’s 9.5% (641.623).

The outcome was a personal victory for VB leader Tom Van Grieken, 33, elected in 2014 as the youngest-ever head of a Belgian party. In his first federal elections, he was the fourth most-popular politician, “moderating VB’s line and presenting a more outward-facing agenda than the party has previously.

The strategy is not only one of moderation, but of modernization. VB did well with young male voters and spent more than any other Belgian party on Facebook advertising. In a press conference after the ballot, van Grieken declared a ‘new Vlaams Belang that doesn’t shut its doors to the press, but that has an open mind.”

In previous coalition negotiations, VB has struggled against its reputation and the tradition of a cordon sanitaire, a pact made by other Flemish parties to exclude any possibility of coalescence with the Vlaams Blok, VB’s predecessor.

Survey data had indicated that the cordon was a contributing factor to a declining vote share for VB. But with its surge in 2019, VB may be taking advantage of “fraying barriers” between right-wing populist factions and mainstream conservative parties in Germany and elsewhere in Europe to erode what N-VA leader Bart da Wever called “the Great Wall of China” in Belgian politics.

Shortly after the election, the N-VA met VB in the hope of forming a coalition in the Flemish Parliament. This was ultimately ruled out by other parties who chose to uphold the cordon. But the Belgian King met van Grieken, the first reception by the monarch of a radical right leader since the 1930s, and the VB has made a mark on the Flemish governing coalition’s policy proposals, particularly over integration.

Polarisation

While the Belgian government has not been formed, all legislative bodies below the federal level have formed coalitions which tell a story of polarization between Belgium’s communities.

In Flanders, the N-VA leads a coalition with the liberal Open VLD and centre-right CD&V. In Wallonia and the French speaking community, the Parti Socialiste leads a coalition with the liberal Mouvement Reformateur and green Ecolo. In the Brussels Regional Parliament, the Flemish Groen and French Ecolo were the main winners of the election; they join a coalition including socialists and liberals.

Across Belgium’s regional bodies different colours reign: the Flemish regionalist yellow, Francophone socialist red, and Brussels’ multi-lingual Green. But the only parties which gained seats in May 2019 were the Greens (Ecolo and Groen), the VB, and the far-left Workers’ Party of Belgium (PVDA-PTB). While they are on opposite sides of the left-right divide, these parties’ voters share a lack of trust in the political system.

The “mainstream” political space between these parties is sparser. The N-VA and the PS have made clear that there is little common ground between their parties; the pull by challenger parties to the left and right is likely to make finding a common platform even more difficult.

This pull away from mainstream parties is a marker of European politics. Emmanuel Macron’s successes in France came at the expense of the Socialist Party, which lost 250 seats in the 2017 legislative elections. The UK’s 2019 European Parliament elections saw the governing Conservative Party fall to 5th place behind both the Green Party and the Brexit Party. In Swiss Parliamentary elections last month, the vote for Green parties increased substantially, but the radical right populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) remained the largest in the legislature.

See also Surprises in Switzerland’s Election: A Green Surge, More Women, and Decline for Populist SVP

A Stalled State of Play

This rise of populism and hollowing out of the center are not only electoral phenomena; they affect the functioning of political institutions. Belgium is an exemplar of this erosion. In addition to the 127 days needs for the formation of a Flemish coalition, an unlikely combination of left-wing parties and the VB threatened a government shutdown after a last-minute budgetary amendment.

There is government stasis and uncertainty is present across Europe: in the difficulties faced by the Italian governing coalition, the prolonged and controversial selection process for the head of the European Commission, and the strikes and protests across Catalonia this month.

It is tempting to think of Belgium, with its many institutions and convoluted process of government formation, as unique. It’s not. With the development — or lack of development — in its many institutions, Belgium is now setting the path for political shifts across Europe.