Friday, October 13, 2006

Turning point

This is a follow-up post about the local elections in Belgium, focusing on the result in my hometown Antwerp. I suggest you re-read my earlier post before you continue reading.

The result of the local elections in Antwerp has highlighted a polarization and should make everybody who cares for the future of Antwerp and the rest of Flanders (, Belgium and Europe) very worried.

The far-right anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang (VB – Flemish Interest) has risen from 33% in 2000 to 33,5%. The socialists, the party of the incumbent mayor and the biggest party in the rainbow-coalition, almost doubled their share of the vote to 35% and became the biggest party in Antwerp again. The gain of the socialists was the loss of their coalition partners.

How can the gains of the socialists be explained? I think there are two factors: the growing immigrant vote and the bonus of incumbency.

The immigrants in Antwerp represent 17% of the electorate (but 25% of the population, however, not all of them have the right to vote) compared to 11% in 2000 (an increase of 50% in six years time). Those immigrants have voted overwhelmingly for the socialists. The immigrants on the socialist ballot list collected more than 22% of the socialist vote. Consequently 7 out of 22 (or almost one third of the) socialist councillors are immigrants. 5 out of 7 of those councillors have made it to the city council on their own, jumping over many (native) candidates that stood higher on the list. I therefore believe the socialist party was also surprised by the success of their immigrant candidates. By the way, the same thing happened at last years’ local elections in the Netherlands.

Besides the 7 socialist councillors, there are also two other immigrant councillors that represent the christian(!)-democrats. Those nine immigrant councillors (part of the 35 non-VB councillors out of 55 councillors) in theory could form a blocking minority within the majority. Therefore some talk about a “brown Sunday”, a shift in the balance of power between the natives and the immigrants.

Besides the growing immigrant vote, the bonus for the incumbent mayor played a role. The mayor was regarded as the only one who could take on the VB’s frontman Filip Dewinter, an image that the mayor reinforced by conducting a “presidential” campaign, with a little help from the media. A clear indicator of this bonus effect can be found in the result of Antwerp for the provincial elections. There the VB is the biggest party again with almost 34% of the vote, before the socialists (the mayor’s party); the other coalition partners fared better.

So Antwerp is characterized by a polarization between the bloc of immigrants/progressives on the one hand and the revolting natives with the center dwindling into insignificance. The percentage of VB-voters has grown 0.5% despite the reduced share of the natives in the electorate. As a percentage of the native population the number of VB-voters is even bigger: one can assume that 4 out of 10 “Antwerpenaren” voted VB, in the boroughs outside the old city walls, probably more than half did.

Antwerp has witnessed a demographic shift during the past years. Especially in the part of town within the old city walls, the immigrant part has grown and the native part has decreased. The socialists became the biggest party and the VB lost support or stagnated. Natives emigrated to outside the city walls (to the boroughs or the surrounding little towns). In those boroughs the socialists also won, but less significantly, and the VB made huge inroads (with more than 40% of the vote), however without achieving an absolute majority. In the surrounding towns the VB won as well and in many of them became the biggest party.

You can see this evolution (gains for the socialists because of the immigrant vote and stagnation or even retreat of the VB) in other towns like Ghent or Mechelen too. The socialists have many immigrant councilors as well: 1 out of 4 in Ghent and 3 out of 8 in Mechelen. So it seems that Antwerp again sets the trend for the rest of (urbanized) Flanders. In the meantime the VB follows the emigrated natives to the surrounding towns and even the countryside.

This evolution will continue. I would be very surprised if the VB would win in Antwerp in 2012. Its frontman has already said before the elections that 2006 would be his last chance. The socialists will more and more become a big cities’ party, while the VB could become the party of the surrounding little towns and maybe even the countryside.

So the elections were a turning point. The immigrants became more powerful and will be more assertive (some of their councillors already demanded a post in the town government) while the remaining natives will hunker down. It is almost inevitable that this situation will produce troubles. Therefore an objective observer can hardly be happy with this result. Some dark times lie ahead for Antwerp and Flanders.