Vlaams Belang, the Flemish anti-immigration party, remains at the top of the polls in Flanders. How does one explain the incredible success of Tom Van Grieken’s party?
Tom Van Grieken is the most popular politician on Facebook. Last week, his page passed the milestone of 500 000 likes. He thus far exceeds all other politicians in Belgium. “It’s an interesting medium. We receive feedback directly from people. We know if the message gets through or not,” the leader of Vlaams Belang party, told broadcaster De Zevende dag (VRT), on Sunday.
The tactic is simple: invest en masse in social media to bypass traditional media in order to directly target potential voters. With more than 600 000 followers, Vlaams Belang even manages to have a larger audience on social networks than the Flemish reference audiovisual media, VTM (437 000 followers) and the VRT (390 000 followers).
But why are voters turning to Vlaams Belang? Jan Antonissen, journalist and author of the book De Ontfatsoenlijken, [The Deplorables] points to two elements: inequality and identity. “The difference between people is getting bigger and bigger. More and more people feel excluded from society. They no longer feel at home and feel betrayed by the traditional parties.”
Belgian political scientist, author and columnist Dave Sinardet confirmed this observation to RTBF: “The frustration is still present vis-à-vis the policy of migration, asylum and security. Across Europe, this phenomenon is occurring. We see it with Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet in the Netherlands…”
Also, during the extended period of negotiations to form a new government, which lasted more than 16 months, Vlaams Belang kept repeating that it was necessary to return to the polls for citizens to express themselves. The other parties also did not want new elections, because “the only one who could emerge stronger from a new election is the Vlaams Belang,” Caroline Sägesser, researcher at Crisp had warned.
The party is not limited to social networks either. For example they organized a mass demonstration at Heysel at the end of September where some 10 000 people gathered to claim that the De Croo government was not their government with the hashtag #nietmijnregering.
Thousands of supporters of the Flemish party had expressed their anger in a protest against the government majority coalition set to assume power in response to the political deadlock. Convoys of cars drove into Brussels from cities across northern Belgium after the majority among Flemish parties were not represented in the federal parliament.
The Vivaldi Coalition grouped together the Flemish and Francophone socialists, liberals and greens plus the Flemish Christian democrats in a bid to keep Vlaams Belang out. Belgium went to the polls on 26 May 2019 but has been struggling to form a new federal government ever since.