Flemish Bloc

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The Vlaams Blok, or Flemish Bloc, a Flemish political party of the extreme Right, was founded in 1979, as the result of a fusion between two dissident factions that had broken away from the then dominant Flemish nationalist party, the Volksunie (People's Union). It represented the hard-liners within that party, who cultivated the heritage of the radical nationalism of the interwar and World War II period and who often belonged to a subculture in which the collaboration with the Nazis was justified as an act of Flemish idealism. They were frustrated by the "progressive" course followed by the Volksunie leaders and by their willingness to participate in negotiations with the other parties about the federalization of Belgian institutions. The final aim of these radical nationalists was not federalization but the independence of Flanders (with Brussels as capital).

During the first years of its existence, when the party was unequivocally led by its founder Karel Dillen, this secessionist claim formed the core of its program. From the interwar Flemish nationalism, however, the Vlaams Blok had inherited not only secessionist ideals but also authoritarian party structures (without an explicit rejection of parliamentary democracy) and an ethnocentric nationalism with xenophobic overtones (but without any overt anti-Semitism). During the second half of the 1980s, this latter element started to overshadow the original Flemish nationalism, making of the Vlaams Blok a primarily anti-immigrant party. The driving force behind this evolution was the young and popular Antwerp politician Filip Dewinter. The shift toward this anti-immigrant program allowed not only for the recruitment of new party officials but also for a considerable extension of the electorate. The real breakthrough for the Vlaams Blok occurred with the parliamentary elections of 24 November 1991, when the party trebled its 1987 share of the vote, thus covering more than 10 percent of the Flemish electorate. Ever since, the party's electoral results have shown further progress. During the 2004 elections for the Flemish parliament, it obtained more than 24 percent of the vote, thus becoming Flanders's largest single party. In its main stronghold, Antwerp, it reached a monster score of more than 34 percent, outdoing its own result in the 2000 local elections in that town by 1 percent.

This overwhelming success was mainly due to the party's ability to adapt a long-lasting tradition of right-wing Flemish nationalism to current concerns about politics and society. Only a minority of the Vlaams Blok's electorate seems to be inspired by Flemish nationalist concerns. It consists largely of young people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, with a relatively low degree of education and only weak ties to civil society. The Flemish nationalist background of the party, however, does provide an organizational and ideological framework within which this group's feelings of political alienation and welfare chauvinism can gain political momentum. The often mentioned tension within the party between the neoconservative Flamingantism represented by Gerolf Annemans and the anti-immigrant populism represented by Dewinter appears therefore as a matter of style and strategy rather than ideology. Karel Dillen judiciously averted the threatening potential of this tension in 1996 by appointing as his successor to the party's presidency the intermediate figure Frank Van Hecke.

If all these factors have made the Vlaams Blok the strongest extreme-right party of Western Europe, it has so far been deprived of political power, in spite of its (since 1994) often expressed willingness to accept governmental responsibilities. This exclusion from power is due to the so-called cordon sanitaire, an agreement (1989, renewed in 1994) between all the other Flemish political parties represented in parliament not to engage in any coalition or political initiative with the Vlaams Blok. Because of this agreement, the party has not yet been compelled to make the potentially disrupting choice between maintaining ideological purity or transforming into a broad right-wing party participating in the games of party politics.

A judicial sentence in April 2004 (confirmed by the Court of Cassation in November of that year) that condemned some of the party's affiliated organizations for their transgressions of the law on racism ended the official existence of the party. As early as 14 November 2004, however, a new party was founded under the name Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest). Although this "new" party shuns an overtly racist discourse, the structures and the party summit are inherited from the Vlaams Blok. Because of this evident continuity, the other political parties have decided not to abandon the cordon sanitaire.

See alsoBelgium; Flemish National League.


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Marnix Beyen