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 culture, 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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8 thoughts on “Queer times in Belgian politics

  • Bill Daley a former Wall Street Executive for JP Morgan Chase has been appointed chief-of-staff. But some are wondering why Obama is trying to get so close to the people who he once called “fat cat bankers”. So have Wall Street and Washington become one in the same?

  • Alvin Barrile

    Hi. I wanted to thank you for the good information you have posted on your website. I will definitelycome back to check it out again and have subscribedto your RSS feed. Have a fantastic day.

  • Niet zo’n slechte analyse… doch soms een beetje kort door de bocht 😉

  • Demongirl1960

    As long as they don’t let it interfere with their job, what they do in their own bedroom is their OWN business.

    Via Sodahead

  • Astro-Boy ~ Death

    If they can do the job, then that’s all I care about.

    Via Sodahead

  • noone_special

    As long as he does his job, it doesnt matter who he does

  • Khaled: I am encouraged to see people whose sexual orientation is different then mine getting more and more accepted by the public. I hope it won’t be long before it is as important to mention a gay’s sexual orientation as it is now to talk about a heterosexual orientation.

    Via Facebook

  • François Maes

    Je artikels zijn meestal erg to the point. Maar over BHV zou ik zwijgen als ik dat niet ken. En het zeker niet naar andere landen communiceren. Het is al erg genoeg dat de meeste buitenlandse journalisten alleen Frans kennen en dus alleen Franstalige bronnen gebruiken.
    De mensen, zoals wij, die in BHV wonen, zijn wel in die problematiek geïnteresseerd. Met je quote dat dit alleen politici interesseert ga je wel erg kort door de bocht. Onze geschiedenis zegt dat al wie in het verleden in Wallonië gaan wonen is het maar normaal vindt dat hij zich aanpast aan de streek en haar taal. Denk maar aan de Italiaan De Rupo en de Limburgse Onckelinkx. Maar er zijn honderdduizenden anderen. Ook nu nog: hoeveel Vlamingen gaan in Hamme-Mille, Jodogne, Grez-Doiceau enz. wonen? Leggen zij daar het Nederlands als voertaal op? Nee toch, en dat is niet meer dan logisch. Maar de Brusselaars die in Vlaanderen komen wonen vinden niet alleen dat ze zich niet hoeven aan te passen, meer nog, dat Vlaanderen zich naar hen moet schikken. Historisch is het zo dat de Franstaligen België tot voor kort gedomineerd hebben. Sommigen leven nog in die mentaliteit: de heren en de boerkes. Vandaag willen de Vlamingen gewoon dat zij zich als evenwaardige en niet als superieure burgers gedragen. Denk je echt dat het de mensen niet interesseert als ze in hun eigen gemeente overrompeld worden door mensen die hun een andere taal komen opdringen? Nee toch?

    Via Facebook


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