(photo credit: Courtesy)
Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt's party sought to put on a brave face Monday after it suffered widespread losses in weekend local elections, which produced gains for the extreme-right Flemish Interest party.
Final tallies showed the Flemish Interest party was the main benefactor reaping votes in the northern Dutch-speaking Flanders region away from Verhofstadt's Liberal Democrats.
His national government coalition partners, the French-speaking Socialists, also suffered losses in the French-language region because of a string of corruption scandals, but did not suffer as poorly as expected.
"People made a conclusion on the things that went on," said Elio di Rupo, Socialist leader and premier of Wallonia.
Newspaper headlines reflected the bad news now facing Verhofstadt's fragile coalition, which has dropped in popularity in recent months because of party infighting and a perception it is weak on crime. The opposition Christian Democrats and Flemish Interest have successfully exploited it.
Last week, Verhofstadt hinted that he would not rule out a wider coalition with the rising Christian Democrats in a new national government if elections planned for May or June continue his party's decline.
"Liberal Democrat losses go to Flemish Interest," headlined Het Belang Van Limburg.
"We must acknowledge that the government has had a few bad months and we know that whoever leads faces the most fire," Verhofstadt said. He added, however, that he was "convinced the results ... will be different come next year."
Flemish Interest made inroads across smaller towns and cities in Flanders beyond its traditional stronghold of Antwerp. In its base, it was beat by a surging Socialist party in the port city.
Based on the provincial results, the anti-immigrant party rose to 20.6 percent, up from 14.9 percent six years ago, to win the second-largest number of votes in Flanders overall after the Christian Democrats and beat the governing Liberal Democrats and Socialists.
Local media, however, pounced on the victory of incumbent Antwerp Mayor Patrick Janssens against the far right party.
"The rise of the far right is not inevitable," headlined daily Le Soir, while Het Nieuwsblad headlined "No Black Sunday."
Socialists captured 22 seats compared with 20 for the extreme-right party on the 55-seat council in Antwerp, according to official results. However, that did not take away from the far-rights success in becoming top seat holders in seven other municipal councils.
Flemish Interest party leader Filip Dewinter said his opponents could not claim victory in Antwerp, saying they only maintained the status-quo, with little gains over the last elections six years ago.
"We have not done so good" in Antwerp, Dewinter said, because "immigrants got the right to vote, that had an influence." He claimed that other parties pushed measures to fast-track citizenship for migrants in the city, giving them the right to vote.
His party, which ran on an anti-immigrant platform, has been kept in opposition in Antwerp by an unlikely rainbow coalition whose only common cause is keeping the city out of the hands of the far right.
That scenario is likely to be repeated in other areas in the north, meaning that despite its strong showing overall, the party is unlikely to take part in governing.
The French-speaking Socialists were forced to give up their absolute majority in the industrial city of Charleroi in Wallonia and also lost seats in Namur, the capital of the region.
French-speaking Christian Democrats were the biggest benefactor of lost Socialist votes.