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Another battle lining up for the extreme right in Europe _ in key Belgian port city

Another battle lining up for the extreme right in Europe _ in key Belgian port city

Far from the gothic spires and Rubens paintings that made this city famous, disgruntled locals were packed into the Pico Bello bar set among concrete apartment blocs on the wrong side of the Scheldt river.
Finally, the main attraction arrived: Filip Dewinter, leader of the extreme-right Flemish Interest party.
"We're full. Too much is too much. People don't feel at home on their own street anymore," Dewinter said with a strident conviction that the urban, local poor never hear from the traditional parties.
At the last municipal elections in 1994, Dewinter's party became the biggest in one of Europe's largest ports _ a city renowned for its art scene and trendy youths. Its rise is expected to continue on Sunday, when cities across Belgium hold municipal elections.
"The Flemish Interest is going for another victory because the population wants change, they want a transformation," Dewinter confidently predicted.
His party now has 20 of 55 seats on Antwerp's municipal council and 33 percent of the vote. Polls point toward another rise even though it probably won't be enough to give them control of city hall.
From Antwerp, the reach of the party has steadily spread over most of northern Belgium's Dutch-speaking Flanders.
At the last regional elections two years ago, it became the biggest single party in economically wealthy Flanders with 32 out of 124 seats. It does not contest elections in southern, francophone Wallonia.
For years, Belgium's traditional parties and much of the mainstream media have been doing their utmost to contain the spread of the extreme right. They have ostracized Dewinter's party, heaping one Nazi metaphor on top of another, successfully taking them to court on racism charges and entering unlikely coalitions to keep them out of government.
But even incumbent mayor Patrick Janssens, who leads a rainbow coalition united mainly in its opposition to Flemish Interest, feels the groundswell in this city of 460,000 people may not have reached its peak yet.
Dewinter says the success of his party is based on gripes heard all over Europe: an aloof political class refusing to acknowledge the everyday concerns of the common man _ the perception of rising crime, the degradation of inner-city neighborhoods, the increase in asylum seekers and illegal immigrants.
On top of that comes that quintessential Belgian twist of language.
Much of the early success of the party was based on complaints about the financial drain from Flanders to poorer Wallonia, where a dominant Socialist party is struggling to overcome a rustbelt heritage and creeping corruption.
"I don't in any way underestimate the possibility that they will grow further," Janssens said during a campaign stop, shouting over the din of rave music young Antwerp voters were dancing to.
That same day Dewinter was entertaining a mostly elderly crowd in a "cafe tour" taking him to several popular places in and around this city that has historically thrived on opening its arms to the world.
"Immigration no longer gives an added value but has become a nuisance," said Dewinter, adding his own assessment that the city has become burdened with 25,000 illegals, and 12,000 asylum seekers. "So we call for a stop to immigration."
For all the hyperbole, Dewinter's tone has softened since his party was forced to disband in 2004 because a court ruled it used hate and discrimination slogans against immigrants and refugees in a racist manner.
It changed its name from Flemish Bloc to Flemish Interest and continued with the same politicians and structure. The old campaign symbol of boxing gloves has been replaced by a view of a wheatfield.
To what extent they have truly changed depends on whom one talks to.
"They have largely used the court ruling to their advantage. It has rather helped them putting themselves in a kind of victim role," said Janssens, a Socialist. "I don't see any change except for the name and a little bit of the packaging."
Today, Dewinter feels increasingly among friends in Europe: Switzerland recently adopted one of the world's toughest asylum and immigration laws and Austrian extreme-right wing parties made a good showing in parliamentary elections last Sunday.
"The Flemish Interest does not stand alone in Europe," he said.


Updated : 2021-05-06 13:49 GMT+08:00