BELGIAN LOCAL POLLS -- FAR RIGHT LOOKS POISED TO MAKE GAINS, BUT NOT SCORE BREAKTHROUGH

Identifier: 
06BRUSSELS3382

UNCLAS BRUSSELS 003382

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV, BE
SUBJECT: BELGIAN LOCAL POLLS -- FAR RIGHT LOOKS POISED TO
MAKE GAINS, BUT NOT SCORE BREAKTHROUGH

1. (SBU) Summary: Belgium's October 8 local elections will
prove one thing -- all politics might be local, but all local
politics have national political implications. In
Dutch-speaking Flanders, that means that the far right Vlaams
Belang party looks poised to make important gains, but not to
make the dramatic breakthrough needed to breach the cordon
sanitaire blocking cooperation with other parties,
particularly in the major cities. In the French-speaking
Walloon region, the dominant Socialist Party seems set to
hold on to the top spot despite numerous charges of
corruption and cronyism. Whatever the result, the governing
Liberal-Socialist coalition will tell the public that the
local elections are just that and that it will continue
working until the federal polls in the spring. End Summary.

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Vlaams Belang Moving Forward, But not as Fast as it Wants
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2. (SBU) Several messages have emerged from the avalanche of
often contradictory polls released over the past few weeks.
The first is that the Vlaams Belang (VB) has increased its
support throughout Flanders, in the process solidifying its
position as the second largest party in the region.
Unfortunately for VB leader Filip De Winter, increased
support does not look like it will translate into a majority
or near majority outside of the Antwerp suburbs. The party
has put most of its energy into scoring a breakthrough in
Antwerp; polls suggest they will come close, but not gain an
overall majority. Failure to achieve a majority would prove
a big disappointment for the party's leaders, who are eager
to show their ability to govern, and for many of its voters.
They have grown tired of casting protest ballots for the last
ten years, and may want to have someone representing their
interests in a position actually to do something. VB may
manage to muscle its way into government in a few small towns
and rural areas where local politicians could prove willing
to ignore orders from their leaders in Brussels if that is
what it takes to hold on to their own seats.

3. (U) The other big message concerns the Flemish Christian
Democrats led by Yves Leterme, the Minister-President of
Flanders. Most polls indicate the party is going to recoup
ground lost six years ago. This should translate into
success in rural areas, but probably will not gain the party
victory in any big ities. Despite local scandals, the
Flemish Socialists should retain their control of the urban
areas. Interestingly, the Christian Democrats probably will
make a dent in the otherwise monolithic support that the
Socialists enjo in the Muslim and immigrant communities.

4.(U) The Flemish Liberals led by Prime Minister Verhofstadt
look like they will do poorly in the elections. In an
attempt to prevent a complete rout, the Prime Minister has
backed away from plans announced at the outset of the
campaign not to get involved in the local races. Of late, he
has even started campaigning for the current
Liberal-Socialist ticket in Ghent, joining his Socialist
cabinet colleague in a series of mildly salacious billboards
touting the accomplishments of the city's red-blue
administration since 2000.

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Socialist Machine Clicking Smoothly in French Areas
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5. (U) The Francophone Socialists (PS) will pay a price for a
series of corruption charges against the party's old guard,
but the most recent polls suggest only limited damage at the
polls. In practice, this means the PS will have to form
coalitions rather than rule without partners. French Liberal
(MR) leader and Finance Minister Reynders has high hopes of
becoming mayor of Liege, and the MR and French Christian
Democrats may score an upset in Namur, where the governing
socialists may lose out on power for the first time in years.
Development Minister De Decker (MR) is leading in Uccle, a
Brussels suburb. Defense Minister Flahaut seems to have the
pole position in his native town of Nivelles. Justice
Minister Onkelinx, also PS, faces a tough fight in the
Brussels region commune of Schaarbeek, a heavily immigrant
area, but a setback may not necessarily harm her federal
career. The Front National, the far right group active in
French-speaking areas, should gain numerous protest votes,
notably in Charleroi, ground zero of the anti-corruption
investigation. Lacking charismatic and effective leadership,
the Front should be in no position to hinder the socialists.

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Comment
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6. (SBU) Because of the recent skirmishes inside the
Liberal-Socialist federal cabinet, and the painstaking budget
negotiations, the local elections of 2006 will reverberate
more than previous local elections. Disappointing returns
for the federal coalition parties would not immediately
unnerve Verhofstadt's cabinet, a poor showing is certain to
cast a pall over the Prime Minister's attempt to kickoff his
own campaign to keep his job. Simply put, if he has a
choice, Verhofstadt would rather do well in the polls, than
have to explain why losing is unimportant. End comment.
Korologos
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