(photo credit: AP)
The results are in. The extreme right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest or VB) did not capture Antwerp's city hall. Meanwhile, the center-right Flemish Liberals and Democrats of Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt lost throughout the country, while the Socialist Party in Wallonia hung on, contrary to many predictions.
But is the outcome really a victory for the democratic parties, as those who consistently block the VB out of coalitions are called? Or was it a Pyrrhic victory, as VB leader Filip Dewinter said on Sunday evening as the results became clear?
A look at Antwerp, Belgium's second city with the country's largest Orthodox community, shows that there are no easy answers, especially for the Jewish community. With the notable exception of Claude Marinower, the openly Jewish council member who regularly decries the situation, the mainstream parties, including the current coalition of socialists, liberals and Greens, have done too little to combat the anti-Semitism and racism that are still found here.
Campaigning for a "Livable Antwerp," the VB seems like an alternative. Using an excellent communications strategy, the party stands for a Flanders that is closed to immigrants, creating a better atmosphere for everyone. Moreover, playing into people's fears, the party is openly anti-Muslim. Dewinter, in a now-famous interview last year with the New York Jewish Week, claimed the VB espoused Islamophobia.
In fact, the party's predecessor, Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc), was banned in 2004 for incitement to hate and discrimination. Meanwhile and surprisingly, Dewinter has done a fabulous job of looking respectable to the Jews, taking consistently pro-Israel stances and creating good contacts with certain rabbis in the community.
And indeed, looking closely at the results, the elections seem to have been more about marketing than anything else. Dewinter's charm offensive seems to have worked. And others are catching on.
In cities such as Ghent and Mechelen, where the VB was the largest party on the city council before the elections but shut out from the coalition, mainstream mayors have campaigned hard to become better known. And in both these cities, they were reelected and the VB did not gain seats.
SOCIALIST MAYOR Patrick Janssens of Antwerp, where Dewinter hoped to become mayor by gaining an absolute majority, increased his party by 10 council seats, flying past the VB, which was the largest party before the elections. Though the VB didn't lose any seats - the 10 gained came from the liberals and Greens, Janssens's coalition partners - neither did they win.
Janssens's background is in marketing. He came to the mayoralty from the advertising world. Upon election, his pledge was to communicate better and to connect better to "de Antwerpenaars" - the citizens of his city.
This he has done. And his efforts are bearing fruit. Using American-style techniques, he kept people up-to-date on what is happening in the city. He organized regular cultural events to indemnify citizens for the seemingly constant construction and related disruptions. In a country where voting is mandatory, he ran on a personal campaign for mayor. And he got reelected on it, too.
Has he, however, solved the problems of the Jewish community? Not really, according to the Forum of Jewish Organizations, a Jewish umbrella group based in Antwerp. The Jewish community still witnesses anti-Semitism and choosing whom to vote for was not easy at all, according to Nadine Iarchy, a board member of the forum: "The democratic parties have done little to combat anti-Semitism, while the Vlaams Belang actively reaches out and presents itself as an alternative."
Only last week, students from a local yeshiva were attacked again. This was the fourth attack on students of this institution alone. Last May, Antwerp witnessed the murder of a woman from Mali by a skinhead. The baby in her care also died in the attack. Anti-Semitic graffiti are seen regularly. Racist violence has not been curbed by the current coalition, there is too little attention to the combating racism and anti-Semitism in the Flemish educational system, and the Jewish community feels unsafe.
To add insult to injury, the voting took place on Sunday, the second day of Succot, and there was no other option for observant Jews than to give a proxy form to trusted non-Jews. The only party that systematically went around collecting those forms was the VB.
Now, the forum's secretary-general, Diane Keyser, says that it is unclear what will happen next, and how a new coalition might impact the situation of the Jewish community.
What is clear, however, is that the Jewish community trusts the complacent "democratic parties" no more than the Vlaams Belang. Obliged by law to vote, forced to choose between two evils, we feel ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The writer is the policy officer at CEJI - A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe.
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