Belgium: A “new course” for the Vlaams Blok?

Is the Vlaams Blok trying to change itself into a more "mainstream" rightwing party?

According to some of the Belgian media there is a serious discussion about this inside the Vlaams Blok. After three associations linked to the Vlaams Blok were found guilty by a court of being racist, there is a threat of the Vlaams Blok losing its state subsidy which, in total, is about 5.5 million euro a year. The leadership of the Vlaams Blok immediately started a discussion on changing its name to avoid losing the funding. At present the most likely new name for the Vlaams Blok will be Vlaamse Liga (Flemish League).

A new lick of paint

In the capitalist press there was a discussion about the extent to which the Vlaams Blok would change its character. This was re-enforced by Vlaams Blok chairman Frank Vanhecke writing that the "new" party would be a "Vlaams Blok Lite". Filip De Man MP, who is well known for his sympathy for openly fascist ideas, immediately reacted and said that this would not be acceptable. De Man, however, is a loyal supporter of the party leadership who could use his ‘opposition’ to ‘give in’ at and say that only the name was being changed, not the programme or methods of the party. Possible critical voices in the party would be silenced by this manoeuvre. The so-called "new course" of the party rather seems to be just a new lick of paint.

The whole debate however did show a potential problem for the Vlaams Blok. On the one hand an openly careerist elected ‘independent’ Vlaams Blok MP, former journalist Jurgen Verstrepen, wrote on his website that the official ‘opposition’ of De Man was a "meaningless unimportant position of someone who needs attention". On the other hand however there are people like the former party vice-president Roeland Raes, who saw his public career being ended by the Blok leadership when he declared on television to have doubts about the truth of the holocaust in the 1940s. Raes wrote in the paper of Voorpost, the unofficial grouping responsible for stewarding at Vlaams Blok meetings and activities, that a "softening" of the party could lead to the fact that it would no longer be good enough as a political instrument.

This debate is a result of the roots of the Vlaams Blok. The party was built by ideological educated people who first became politically active with the help of former nazi-collaborators in the 1930s and 1940s. Former chairman Karel Dillen, who was a key person in launching the Vlaams Blok in 1977, became active in such an environment in the late 1940s. Other key leaders in the Vlaams Blok also have no problem in basing themselves on that past. Just a few days ago, the leader of the Vlaams Blok in Gent and an MP, Francis Van den Eynde, spoke at an educational meeting of Voorpost on the role of nazi-collaborator Staf De Clerq. De Clerq was one of the leaders of the VNV, the Flemish nationalist party which fully supported the nazi invasion in Belgium in 1940 and then collaborated with the occupation regime.

Under pressure

The Vlaams Blok leadership however is under pressure from its growing electoral support that does not today support openly Nazi ideas. Sections of its leadership feel that the party needs to adapt its rhetoric to be able to continue its electoral growth, especially as it has not really built a strong politically active membership. The leadership can count on a layer of new careerists who joined the party as they saw opportunities for a career opening up in the Vlaams Blok. These however are not strong people and are not able to have a serious impact on the leadership of the Vlaams Blok. The leadership is using them as long as they are useful. On the other hand the old guard in the party, who played a role in building the party in the 1980s and 1990s, does not dare to openly raise too much criticism as they have no alternative outside the party.

Recently the populist element in the Vlaams Blok has been strengthened compared to the purely fascist elements as far as the programme and the tactics of the party are concerned. While growing from a small to a big electoral party, and moving from the poorest neighbourhoods to the better-off areas, the party has removed the sharpest aspects of its propaganda and official programme. In the meantime party leader Filip Dewinter did not see any problem in demonstrating together with neo-nazis in Antwerp in March 2004. Vlaams Blok chairman Frank Vanhecke also declared: "We do not change what we say, only how we say it."

This however is only partly true. The fact that the attempts to be seen as a softer party have led to the Vlaams Blok attracting a new layer, including careerists without any ideological background. This strengthens the populist element and creates possible tensions. It is not possible to continue indefinitely with the party having contradictory positions according to who is talking. On the one hand the Vlaams Blok tries to portray itself as the ‘party of the little people’, but on the other hand the party has no problem with an ex-boss in its ranks, Freddy Van Gaever, declaring that all the unemployed are "too lazy to work". The fact that the party leadership, from its cosy parliamentary environment, does not object to the positions of someone like Van Gaever will work against them in the long run.

As soon as workers’ resistance to the present government’s neo-liberal policies becomes more active, in the form of struggles as we see in countries like Germany and even the Netherlands, there will be a lot less space for the Vlaams Blok to manoeuvre between the image of an anti-establishment party on the one hand and the image of a party of ‘decent civilians’ demanding "law and order" on the other. The exercise to find a balance, which now already leads to some limited internal debate in the party, could possibly explode as movements of the working class develop and surely when the working class would enter the political scene with its own mass party.

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September 2004