As the political parties struggle to come to some sort of agreement over the form of the next national government, one party will now take up the negotiations with a brand-new, and rather inexperienced, leader. The Flemish Christian Democrat party CD&V yesterday elected Joachim Coens, scion of a distinguished political family who until now was CEO of the Port of Zeebrugge, as their new leader.
The election was occasioned by the appointment of former party president Wouter Beke as Flemish minister for welfare and public health. Ultimately, the race came down to two men: Coens, aged 53, and Sammy Mahdi, 22 years his junior and chair of the party’s youth wing. Coens by a narrow margin: 53.12% of the votes of 22,753 party members.
Coens is mayor of Damme, a picturesque town of some 11,000 souls on the canal between Bruges and the coast. His job as CEO of the Port of Zeebrugge, however, has given him an important European profile, as it is one of the continent’s most important ports for the traffic of natural gas, as well as the export of new and second-hand cars.
His party colleagues, at least those of a certain age, remember his father Daniël, who served as education minister in the fifth government of Wilfried Martens in the 1980s, before leaving the federal to join the Flemish government of minister-president Gaston Geens.
Coens is a civil engineer by training, and spent a period of his career involved in construction works in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, before returning to sit in the Flemish parliament and take over as mayor of Damme, following in his father’s footsteps.
“This is a new departure for the Christian Democrats, and I will not make it alone,” he said on hearing the result. And he extended a hand to his rival in the election: “I am counting on each of you, and in particular on Sammy,” he said.
The task facing him now is a difficult one. As Paul Magnette of the French speaking socialist party PS attempts to build a coalition of liberals, socialists and greens for the new federal government, CD&V is maintaining its position of refusing to enter a government that does not also include the Flemish nationalist party N-VA – a fellowship based less on political proximity and more on the fact that no federal government can survive without a majority from Flanders, where N-VA is the largest party. Together, N-VA (24.83%) and CD&V (15.4%) took just over 40% of the votes in the regional elections in Flanders in May.
Coens acknowledged the difficulty of the task ahead of him. “It’s always dangerous to try to board a train in motion,” he said. Mahdi, for his part, accepted his narrow defeat, and promised to go on working for the party’s interests.
“Joachim is president,” he said, “but we will write this story together. We are here, side by side, like good friends.” Mahdi was re-elected as president of Young CD&V last month.