The massive headline slapped across the top of Monday’s edition of Le Soir, Belgium’s main French-language newspaper, hardly seemed like a revelation.
“Two Belgiums,” it read, as if to state the obvious. Belgium has been divided in two, between the francophone south and Dutch-speaking north, since winning its independence almost two centuries ago. Wallonia and Flanders have agreed to disagree on almost everything ever since. While their shared Catholic religion once kept their populations nominally united against the Dutch Protestants in the Netherlands, there is little to bind the Flemish and Walloons in a secular age.
Yet, as hard as it is to imagine Belgium becoming more divided, the outcome of Sunday’s federal election has thrust the country into an existential crisis that seems unprecedented by even Belgian standards. A surge in support for the far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) has raised the spectre of a Flemish populist-separatist coalition seizing power, leaving the French-speaking and left-leaning elites in cosmopolitan Brussels fearing the worst.
Nationally, Vlaams Belang won 12 per cent of the popular vote, up from 3.7 per cent in the 2014 election. With 18 seats, compared to just three before Sunday’s vote, the party could even play kingmaker in the new parliament. Together with the nationalist New Flemish Alliance (known by its Dutch initials N-VA), which won 20 per cent of the vote and 25 seats in the 150-seat federal legislature, Vlaams Belang advocates Flemish independence. That means the next Belgian government could be led by two parties that seek to break up the country.
While francophone parties in the south have called for the creation of a cordon sanitaire around Vlaams Belang, blocking it from being part of any government, N-VA leader Bart De Wever has said he would consider forming a coalition that includes the far-right party. And with the largest block of seats in the new parliament, N-VA will get first dibs on forming a new government, although it faces a difficult task finding enough partners to form a majority.
Still, Vlaams Belang does not need to be part of any government to influence its policies.
Under its clean-cut 32-year-old leader Tom Van Grieken and his social-media savvy aides, Vlaams Belang has been riding on an anti-immigration wave after the 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels that killed 32 people. It has seized on the radicalization of young Muslim men in the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek, home to the terrorist cell associated with the 2015 Paris attacks, to call for the deportation of immigrants who fail "to adapt to our Flemish and European culture.”
The radicalization of young Belgian Muslims is also the theme of Le jeune Ahmed (Young Ahmed), which last week won the director’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival. But while directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne paint a touching portrait of a vulnerable adolescent who’s just looking for meaning in his life, Vlaams Belang chalks up the radicalization of young Belgian Muslims to a basic incompatibility between Islam and Western values.
That point of view doesn’t get much traction in multicultural and majority French-speaking Brussels, home to about a quarter of the country’s 11.4 million residents. While Belgium was one of the first Western European countries to ban Muslim women from wearing the niqab or burka in public, the main francophone parties all remain pro-immigration and pro-European Union.
That has opened up a new fault line in Belgian politics. Flemish nationalists once rallied around language and around economic grievances about transfer payments from wealthier Flanders to poorer Wallonia. Now, they have added opposition to immigration to their separatist quiver.
The coalition government led by incumbent Prime Minister Charles Michel of the centre-right francophone Reformist Movement (MR) fell in December over Mr. Michel’s move to add Belgium’s signature to the United Nations Global Compact on Migration, which the N-VA opposed. Mr. Michel had hoped to emerge from Sunday’s vote with a stronger hand to play. Instead, in the francophone south, both the MR and centre-left Socialists lost seats to the Ecolo party, which, as its name suggests, ran on an environmental platform.
In all, a dozen parties won seats in Sunday’s election, making the formation of a new government even tougher than usual. Many analysts think Belgium is poised to beat the record it set in 2011 when it took 541 days after an election for the Socialists to cobble together a coalition stable enough to govern. And even then, it lurched from crisis to crisis.
Like Belgium itself, its governments always seem to be living on borrowed time. That is likely to be truer than ever for the next one – provided the fractured country even gets that far.