Bart De Wever, president of the Flemish nationalist party N-VA and mayor of Antwerp, has let it be known he wishes to become minister-president of Flanders region following the regional elections in May. De Wever announced his intentions at a New Year press conference yesterday, taking everyone by surprise. And the surprises did not stop there.
Jan Jambon, home affairs minister in the federal government of Charles Michel, has designs on Michel’s own office as prime minister. Federal and European elections take place on the same day in May as the regional elections. And Geert Bourgeois, who currently occupies the post of minister-president of Flanders, will take himself off to the European Parliament to make way for De Wever.
The ambitions of De Wever and Jambon are more than just vague hopes. N-VA currently has the minister-president’s job in Flanders, and the party is virtually unassailable in the region. The party also was the largest in the federal coalition until it stepped down over the UN migration pact. And De Wever acted as king-maker back in 2014 when negotiations were taking place to form a government for the country. Observers were surprised that he did not become PM himself; instead, he chose to pass the crown to Charles Michel, leader of the only French-speaking party in the coalition.
Now he aims to take over in Flanders, while installing his principal lieutenant in 16 Rue de la Loi.
Neither job, to be clear, is directly elected; in both cases, the post is decided on the basis of negotiations among the parties which will make up the respective governments. In both cases, however, N-VA carries such electoral weight that the jobs are virtually theirs for the taking. That said, the idea of the party having such power could cause other parties to unite in opposition in a way never before seen.
The announcement yesterday was greeted with criticism. Wouter Van Besien of opposition Groen in Antwerp tweeted, “Two weeks into a new term and he wants to dump the city. Breach of promise of the highest order. If he wants to be consistent, he should resign as mayor today. Being mayor of Antwerp is not a Plan B.”
Other parties, who will wish to enter into a relationship with N-VA in Antwerp, Flanders or the federal level, were more circumspect. Kris Peeters, himself a former minister-president and contender last October for the Antwerp job, said he was “shocked” and added, “Many people in Antwerp and I myself will have raised their eyebrows.”
De Wever parried the criticism of his place in Antwerp: “Up until a week ago I was saying that I intended to remain as mayor. And that is still what De Wever the man wishes. But that has come into conflict with De Wever the party president,” he said, speaking of himself in the third person. “We think this is the best combination. And De Wever would also give up the party presidency if he became minister-president.” Before concluding in English, quoting Kipling: “The power of the wolf is the pack.”