- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2006

From combined dispatches

BRUSSELS — Belgium’s Flemish far-right party scored strongly in weekend local elections but failed to seize the northern port city of Antwerp.

The anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) won some 20.5 percent in Sunday’s municipal vote, five percentage points higher than in the last such vote in 2000, implanting itself for the first time in some smaller communities.

But while the 33.51 percent it recorded in Antwerp was a slight improvement on its score six years ago, it was overtaken by the Flemish Socialist party (SPA) as the biggest party in town.

The party led by Filip Dewinter also stagnated in such major cities as Ghent and Mechelen — which bodes well for the country’s mainstream parties six months ahead of general elections in 2007.

The “symbolic defeat” of Vlaams Belang in Antwerp “was more important than its progress in the rest of Flanders,” said Pascal Delwit, an analyst at the University of Brussels.

The party has “perhaps reached its ceiling,” he said, notably given that it lost four percentage points in Flanders from the last general election in 2004.

The vote was also a blow for Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, whose Flemish Liberal Democrats won 19 percent of the vote in Flanders, compared with 32 percent for the opposition Christian Democrats.

The Belgian press welcomed Vlaams Belang’s failure in Antwerp.

“Antwerp deserves better than the far right. … Belgium can breathe again,” wrote Beatrice Delvaux, editor of the newspaper Le Soir, whose front-page headline was “Stop right there.”

Vlaams Belang picked up extra votes in many towns and districts across Flanders, the Dutch-speaking north of the country for which it seeks independence. In one Antwerp district, more than 43 percent of voters backed it.

An alliance of mainstream parties has held Antwerp — Belgium’s second city — since 1994 to keep the Vlaams Belang from office, and Socialist Mayor Patrick Janssens will keep his job.

Vlaams Belang wants to stop immigration and urges newcomers to Flanders to learn Dutch, accept Western values or return to their countries of origin. About a quarter of Antwerp’s 460,000 residents are foreign or of foreign extraction, the majority being of North African or Turkish origin.

The party wants to end recognition of Islam as a religion, arguing it is not European and does not respect Western norms.

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