Fifth column: The new people's party


Not just Flanders’ biggest party, but also the only big party, N-VA has come a long way since its first electoral victory 10 years ago

Anja Otte's take on the week in politics

The past decade has been the age of N-VA. Having started off as a one-man show, Flanders’ now most popular party has changed the political landscape thoroughly.

N-VA’s first electoral victory, in 2007, was as part of a cartel with CD&V. The dominating “people’s party” CD&V had been in steady decline and was being seen as interchangeable with the other traditional parties, liberals Open VLD and socialists SP.A.

In opposition, Christian-democrats CD&V reinforced itself by absorbing the nationalists, who were on the verge of political extinction. It worked. The cartel brought CD&V back to power.

One minister of state, however, predicted that CD&V’s little partner would be “like a cactus in its pocket”: poking it into action in the short term, but mostly annoying in the long term.

Indeed, the cartel broke up in 2008, as N-VA was disappointed about the lack of progress on state reform. The nationalists went their own way, led by party president Bart De Wever, whose personality and droll wit turned out to be the key to future successes.

Biggest party

By 2010, N-VA was Flanders’ largest party. This resulted in deadlock in federal coalition negotiations, as N-VA wanted to use its power to force through institutional changes, which the French speakers refused outright.

The outside world feared Belgium would fall apart. Misled by the hysteria in French-language media (the main reason Flanders Today was founded was to balance that out), it failed to notice the Flemings’ down-to-earth attitude and adversity to risk.

Belgium kept going – and so did N-VA. By the 2014 elections, the party gained a formidable 32% of the vote. It is now not just Flanders’ biggest party, but also the only big party, as all others have been reduced to about 15% of the vote.

As a small opposition party, N-VA had to shout to be heard, and it has kept this fighting spirit to this day

N-VA has moved on as well. In its early days, it took pride in being a take-it-or-leave party that would not alter its programme to please a fickle electorate. Staunch nationalists in rhetoric only now, N-VA has changed its focus to economic or migration issues when needed, in line with its expert assessment of public opinion.

In the eyes of its electorate, it even got away with making a French speaker – MR’s Charles Michel – prime minister.

Some things have stayed the same though. As the small opposition party it started out as, N-VA had to shout to be heard. It has kept this fighting spirit to this day, which explains the unafraid, often blunt, tone some of its representatives use.

The 2018 local elections are yet again crucial for N-VA’s evolution. If it secures a good number of mayors, it can build up a local grassroots network much like CD&V’s in the 20th century. It would make it the new people’s party.

Photo: A 2012 N-VA public congress
© N-VA