The Flemish conservative party Open VLD has elected Egbert Lachaert as its new party president, to succeed Gwendolyn Rutten.
Lachaert, aged 42 from Merelbeke in East Flanders, was elected in the first round of voting with a clear majority of 61.03% of the vote. Former minister and mayor of Ostend Bart Tommelein, the most high-profile of the candidates, could do no better than 29.74%.
Els Ampe, the former Brussels city councillor who had campaigned as a radical liberal, won 7% of the vote, while the rank outsider, businessman Stefaan Nuytten, failed to achieve 2%.
Open VLD (the initials stand for Flemish Liberal Democrats) is a liberal party in the continental sense: supporters of business and trade with minimal regulation. Lachaert vowed in his acceptance speech to defend the party’s core principles, at the same time as opening the door to cooperation with other tendencies.
“We are closing one chapter in our liberal party history,” he said. “And at the same time a new chapter opens. We want to represent a broad liberalism which can bring together a wide group of members of our society.”
Tommelein, whose result was unexpectedly low considering his high-profile background and the fact that as mayor of Ostend he has been prominent in the discussion on whether and when to open up the seaside towns again, was conciliatory.
“Democracy has clearly spoken,” he said, and advocated “broad popular liberalism”.
Els Ampe promised to “continue to fight for the base”. Nuytten, meanwhile, expressed his confidence in Lachaert’s ability to handle the relaunch following the corona crisis.
One of the first jobs facing Lachaert in his new post will be the renewal of discussions, suspended during the crisis, for the formation of a national government. Open VLD’s French-speaking equivalent, MR, is currently in the driving seat, and Open VLD is still part of the caretaker coalition. But Lachaert’s party has little muscle compared to heavy hitters like the French-speaking socialists of PS or the Flemish nationalist N-VA.
Paul Magnette, president of PS, congratulated Lachaert (in Dutch) via Twitter.
“Congratulations on your election, Egbert Lachaert,” he wrote. “This is a special moment to be entering the arena. I now eagerly await a constructive collaboration. See you soon!”
Georges-Louis Bouchez, president of Open VLD’s sister party MR, also tweeted.
“Congratulations to Egbert Lachaert for his very clear victory,” he wrote, also in Dutch. “I look forward to working with a strong and united liberal family. Now let us get to work to give Belgium an ambitious recovery plan.”
• The Open VLD membership also voted for a new party executive, which now contains three father-son pairs. Former party president Alexander De Croo joins his father, veteran politician Herman; Jean-Jacques De Gucht sits with father Karel; and newcomer Frank Dewael joins the executive with his father, former Flemish minister-president Patrick.
After a presidential campaign that challenged many of the party’s positions, Els Ampe won enough backing to be voted onto the party executive, where she can be expected to continue to irritate the more conservative members of the conservative party.