Poll after poll shows the conservative Vlaams Belang party holding strong to its first place position in the Flanders region of Belgium. Meanwhile, the party’s following on social media has exploded higher.
How can the success of Tom Van Grieken’s party be explained?
In the last elections in May 2019, the party received more than 18 percent in Flanders, which was behind the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA) party, the second-best result among the Flemish parties, the RTBF news outlet reported. Since then, all polls show Vlaams Belang would win in Flanders, the mostly Dutch-speaking northern half of the country.
After the elections, it took almost 500 days for negotiators to form a federal government. According to political science professor Dave Sinardet, this long negotiation process only rekindled citizens’ aversion to traditional parties as voters felt that the political leaders cared only about themselves.
During the period of government negotiations, Vlaams Belang kept repeating that it was necessary to go back to the voting booth so voters could have a voice. However, the other parties did not want new elections because “the only one who could emerge stronger from a new election is the Vlaams Belang,” said Caroline Sägesser, the researcher at Crisp, at the time.
Tom Van Grieken, the leader of Vlaams Belang, is currently the most popular Belgian politician on Facebook. Last week, his account passed the milestone of 500,000 likes, far exceeding any other Belgian politician on the platform.
“It is an interesting tool. We receive direct feedback from people,” said Van Grieken on the set of De Zevende dag (VRT) on Sunday.
The tactic is simple. The party invests en masse in social media to bypass traditional media so it can directly target potential voters. With more than 600,000 followers, the Vlaams Belang even manages to have a larger audience on social networks than the major Flemish television stations such as VTM (437,000 followers) and the VRT (390,000 followers).
But the party does not limit itself only to social networks. For example, it organized a demonstration in Heysel, Brussels, at the end of September. About 10,000 people gathered there to claim that the newly-formed government of Prime Minister Alexander De Croo is not their government, using hashtag #nietmijnregering.
After the 2014 elections, Vlaams Belang was on the electoral threshold with 5.9 percent of the vote. Five years later, the party experienced a sort of resurrection. According to Liesbeth Van Impe, Bart De Wever and the N-VA bear a great deal of responsibility for the return of Vlaams Belang.
“With the end of the Michel government and the Marrakesh Pact, the head of the N-VA has become nervous. There were social media campaigns where you could see that the citizens’ anger was back,” Van Impe said, pointing out the political turmoil in the country.
As a result, the then government of former Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel failed to address the topic of migration, which is one of the main points of the Vlaams Belang program. Belgium has experienced a number of terrorist attacks linked to migration from Muslim countries and criminal gang attacks on members of the LGBT community and even Belgian priests. Even though the N-VA remained the leading party in Flanders, it paid the price, and the Vlaams Belang obtained more than 18 percent of the vote in the 2019 elections.
But why are voters turning to Vlaams Belang? Jan Antonissen, journalist and author of the book De Ontfatsoenlijken, points to two factors: inequality and identity.
“The difference between people is getting larger and larger. More and more people feel excluded from society. They no longer feel at home and are betrayed by traditional parties,” he explains.
Dave Sinardet confirms this opinion.
“The frustration is always present vis-à-vis migration, asylum, and security policy. Across Europe, this phenomenon is repeating itself. We see it with Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet in the Netherlands,” Sinardet said to RTBF.
Since its formation in the late 1970s, the Vlaams Blok (later Vlaams Belang) has been in the opposition. But Van Grieken does intend to come to power in 2024.
To achieve this, the party will have to materialize its growing success in the polls during the next elections. The Vlaams Belang would then have to find allies and therefore break the active shunning of other parties.
To do that, the party may have to overcome the presence of controversial figures in the ranks of the Vlaams Belang, such as Dries Van Langenhove, the founder of the Shield and Friends group, or Filip Dewinter. But for many voters in Belgium, those are the same figures that draw them to the party in the first place.
Title image: Far-right leader and chairman of the Vlaams Belang Tom Van Grieken speaks during a media conference at the party headquarters in Brussels, Monday, May 27, 2019. Vlaams Belang was the biggest winner in the Belgian elections Sunday after it had been consistently shut out of coalitions over the past quarter century. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)