Fifth column: Bring in the pandas


The recent stunt of N-VA party president Bart De Wever at the television industry's annual ceremony wasn't without political significance

Social media ablaze with comments

Every campaign has some defining moments. In 2003, Steve Stevaert (SP.A) knew his party was headed for victory when teenage girls cheered him on in several train stations. In 2007, Yves Leterme (CD&V) hit the right note when he shrugged and said: “Who believes these people” in a debate with then prime minister Guy Verhofstadt.

Last weekend, viewers witnessed another such moment – although public opinion is mixed on its impact – when N-VA party president Bart De Wever handed out an award at the television industry’s annual ceremony, dressed in... a panda suit.

You read that right: Belgium’s candidate prime minister dressed up as a panda. Instantly, social media exploded with comments. Some noted a lack of dignity (“would Angela Merkel do this?”); others accused De Wever of populism, criticised the timing or simply enjoyed the joke.

Although De Wever decided to pull the stunt at the spur of the moment, it is not without political meaning. Pandas are a hot item in Belgian politics right now because of the famous pair on loan from China that went to a private zoo in Wallonia instead of to Antwerp’s zoo. N-VA, as well as minister-president Kris Peeters, criticised prime minister Elio Di Rupo’s lobbying on behalf of the zoo close to his home town, particularly as the renowned Antwerp Zoo has been vying for pandas for years.

The police escort the animals received from Brussels Airport to their new home only added insult to injury. On a more subliminal level, the pandas, not the most dynamic of mammals, have become Flanders’ metaphor for Wallonia’s perceived laziness and squandering.

Stereotypes like this annoy many French speakers, who often accuse the Flemish of xenophobia or separatism. In reality, though, most N-VA voters are not inspired by nationalist motives, but rather by the party’s views on the economy, as well as a general promise of change.

As if to prove a point, showbiz made for another surprise this weekend, when Flemish viewers voted overwhelmingly for Alex Hirsoult as the country’s candidate for the Eurosong contest in Copenhagen. The hulking, tuxedo-clad French speaker was an unlikely winner, especially as he has little knowledge of the Dutch language. Still, he won over the hearts of the Flemish with his classical voice.

Maybe this was a defining election moment as well. Or, as the jokes on Twitter went, maybe Hirsoult was no-one but De Wever himself, in yet another cuddly costume.

Photo by BELGA