Queer times in Belgian politics

By Khaled Diab

The product of an odd political marriage between left wing Belgian unionists and radical Flemish nationalists could be the world's first openly male premier.

23 June 2010

Sometimes living in can be a surreal and somewhat comic-book experience. With the economy haemorrhaging jobs, inequalities widening and an empty treasury looted by the banks, how has the government been occupying itself for the past three years?

In contrast to their mostly moderate voters, Belgium's Flemish and Walloon parties have been engaged in a bitter and Byzantine war of words over language and an obscure electoral turf war – over whether or not to split the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde electoral district – which matters to few outside the political class.

Since the 2007 elections, one fragile coalition after another has risen and fallen over these petty issues, with the final nail in the coffin coming in April this year.

Of course, I am well aware that these are partly proxy disputes for deeper historical grievances between the country's two main communities, bolstered by the regional economic divide, which largely parallels the language fault lines and has prompted many in now-wealthy Flanders to seek to stem the flow of resources to now-poorer Wallonia.

Nevertheless, there is a touch of fiddling while Rome burns about this fixation on secondary issues, and I can't help but suspect these seemingly manufactured crises are being used to distract from government inaction on issues that really matter, such as creating jobs and steering a course out of the current economic crisis.

So, it was with a sense of foreboding that we headed to the polls last weekend. And, with Flanders's growing shift to the right and the disarray among Flemish progressives and the air of corruption and nepotism surrounding Walloon socialists, voting almost felt like a futile exercise.

The triggered what has been described as a tsunami in Belgian , with the young radical Flemish nationalist Bart De Wever () and the dandy, bow tie-wearing veteran Walloon socialist Elio di Rupo (PS) emerging as their two regions' undisputed winners. It was satisfying to see the far-right suffer the greatest electoral loss in its history.

If nothing else, the aftermath of this shift in the political landscape should provide us with some interesting political theatre: De Wever, the anti-monarchist republican and separatist, has met with his arch-nemesis, the king, and has been chosen to explore coalition options.

More interestingly, De Wever and Di Rupo are set to forge a marriage of opposites between their two parties and, ironically, though they may be like chalk and cheese, the convincing mandate they each possess and their unquestioned capability as political movers, could actually break the impasse that has plagued Belgian politics since the previous election.

Both have been making conciliatory noises to the other side, with De Wever even breaking some of the taboos of Flemish politics by indicating his readiness to accept Di Rupo as Belgium's next prime minister – and the idea has caught on widely. This would make the veteran socialist the first Walloon premier since 1973.

And in a twist of the plot, it would also make him, as far as I'm aware, the world's first openly gay man (Iceland has a lesbian prime minister) to become head of government.

And the great thing is, his sexuality is largely a non-issue in the mainstream, and few Belgians appear fussed by the notion that a gay man is the most likely contender to become the leader of their country. Despite the country's rather staid and conservative image abroad, Belgium is sexually more tolerant than most of the rest of the world and became the second country to legalise gay marriages.

Sadly, there are disgruntled mumblings in far-right circles. After all, Di Rupo embodies everything they despise: not only is he gay, he is also Francophone and, to top it all off, from immigrant stock.

The Vlaams Belang party, whose core supporters are often homophobic, has not openly criticised his sexuality, despite its clearly stated belief that homosexuality has no place in the public sphere – perhaps out of fear of a public backlash or falling foul of discrimination laws.

Nevertheless, the VB's strong man, , tweeted in the runup to the elections that, if Di Rupo became prime minister he would go into self-imposed exile in Namibia. Given that he's a politician who claims to keep his promises, a Facebook group with around 40,000 members is calling on him to stay true to his word.

Although I wouldn't want to wish the anti-immigrant politician on the people of Namibia, Belgium would be a better place without him. I'm also looking forward to seeing how he handles himself as a migrant in Namibia – or perhaps even a political asylum seeker – and whether he follows his own advice to immigrants and assimilates fully into the local , learns Oshiwambo and leaves his Flemish identity behind him in Flanders.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 19 June 2010. Read the related discussion.

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