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‘The Bachelor,’ but Make It Belgian Politics


‘The Bachelor,’ but Make It Belgian Politics


In the United States, Donald J. Trump and Joe Biden can barely agree to share a stage for a debate.

In Belgium, the politicians who will face off on Sunday in the country’s most contested general election in years agreed to a four-episode reality show filmed over a weekend and set in a castle — moat and all.

The show, a political version of “The Bachelor,” called “The Conclave,” transfixed Belgians in the run up to the vote for the country’s national and regional parliaments. The elections are coinciding with those for a European Parliament this weekend, in which 27 European Union countries will vote.

As in many other European countries, the mainstream political establishment in Belgium has shrunk electorally. The far right has surged.

But for Belgium, that dynamic is further complicated by the divide between the country’s French-speaking south, Wallonia, and its Dutch-speaking north, Flanders.

The show’s conceit is centered on the personal dynamics between politicians who are rivals but must ultimately work together to manage the rise of the far right. Perhaps by putting them together for a few days, they can resolve some of their differences.

If nothing else, the show succeeded in airing the grievances that have made a far-right, anti-immigrant, Flemish secessionist party, Vlaams Belang, the election front-runner. A victory for the party could precipitate a crisis for Belgium by thrusting the issue of Flemish independence to the top of the political agenda and threatening to break the country in two.

Whether the show succeeded in facilitating real-world cooperation is another matter. The parties in the political mainstream have long struggled to come together in key moments, and Belgium has become famous for taking record time to form shaky, multiparty coalitions.

Vlaams Belang’s meteoric rise has made that task more urgent and daunting.

Against the backdrop of the stunning grounds and grand interiors of Jemeppe Castle, a medieval château, Eric Goens, a journalist, plays host on “The Conclave” to seven prominent politicians from the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium, Flanders.

They go for walks in the woods. They cook. They eat together. And they get into arguments.

There are moments of conflict and reconciliation; awkward silences and barely disguised disgust; even solo confessional interviews in a chapel.

Among the seven are Tom Van Grieken, the leader of Vlaams Belang; the sitting prime minister, Alexander De Croo, a liberal; and Petra De Sutter, a member of the Green party who is one of the country’s deputy prime ministers, and the most senior trans politician in the European Union.

Vlaams Belang, which translates to Flemish Interest, was among the first in a wave of European far-right parties to capitalize on anti-migrant sentiment across Europe. Originally called Vlaams Blok, the party promoted the return of second- and third-generation Belgians of migrant descent to their ancestral homelands.

In 2004, the party was convicted of violating Belgium’s antiracism law and banned from standing in elections.

The party has since changed its name and image, but, critics say, little else. Belgium, a prosperous northern European country of 11 million people, is home to sizable migrant communities, including Muslims with North African roots, who remain the party’s main target.

This has led all other Belgian political parties to make a longstanding vow to never govern with Vlaams Belang. The question is whether they can manage to uphold that promise if, as projected, Vlaams Belang comes first in the election on Sunday.

Just as pressing, the party wants Flanders — the northern region that is home to about 60 percent of the Belgian population — to secede from the federal state of Belgium and form its own country.

The question of how to manage Mr. Van Grieken’s popularity is perhaps most pressing for Bart De Wever, who leads the New Flemish Alliance, a conservative Flemish nationalist party. He was also among the politicians who participated in “The Conclave.”

Mr. Van Grieken would like the two parties to join forces, form a Flemish government and use it as a launchpad to ultimately force Flemish independence.

Mr. De Wever wants Flemish independence, too, but calls the secessionist plan “a fantasy.” A self-described pragmatist, he is running on a platform that would instead transfer still more powers from Belgium’s federal government to its regions, including Flanders.

The tension between the two men boils over in a fireside scene that oozes reality-TV drama.

It’s nighttime, and a relaxed Mr. Van Grieken sits by an outdoor firepit, when Mr. De Wever steps out.

“Did you just start a campfire here?” Mr. De Wever asks.

“Yes, with these woke books that I want to ban, Bart,” Mr. Van Grieken chuckles.

“It looks like everyone has gone to bed,” Mr. De Wever says, looking around awkwardly.

“They don’t want to hang out with us, Bart,” Mr. Van Grieken says. “Your fate is that you always end up with me down the line.”

That is the scenario all of Belgium’s political establishment would like to avoid. And while Mr. De Wever shares in that disdain for Vlaams Belang, he has long been vague about whether he will honor the vow never to govern with the party.

In another scene, a fellow politician confronts Mr. De Wever: Will he really get into bed with Vlaams Belang?

“I just told you, it’s a no,” Mr. De Wever finally concedes. “I can’t partner with someone who doesn’t respect democracy. Sorry, that’s quite fundamental.”

The conversation foreshadows the intense negotiations that will almost certainly follow Sunday’s election. For the audience, the show offers a rare, fly-on-the-wall view into the country’s messy politics.

“Maybe you start to understand why things are so hard between leader one and leader two,” Mr. Goens, the show’s host, said in an interview. “It goes very deep, and you never get to see that in the normal debate.”

“The Conclave” shows how these differences between leaders go far beyond ideology in Belgium. The notoriously protracted postelection negotiations of the past have also left deep scars.

Both supporters of liberal economic policies, one would expect current prime minister, Mr. De Croo, and Mr. De Wever to be natural political partners.

But the pair fell out over the last coalition negotiations, in which Mr. De Wever accused Mr. De Croo of slyly undercutting him.

“I’m really not looking forward to this, because there is bad blood between us,” Mr. De Wever tells the camera before confronting Mr. De Croo.

When the two men finally sit down together, Mr. De Croo tries to convince him that they can join forces this time around, but the conversation keeps going back to old grievances.

“Working together requires a certain amount of trust and reliability,” Mr. De Wever tells Mr. De Croo. “That is completely missing.”

Mr. De Croo eventually gives up. “You know, let’s leave it at that.”

“I think we are getting to the point where we are going to say things that we are going to regret,” says Mr. De Wever.

Mr. De Croo tries to end on a positive note.

“I’m not a vindictive person,” he says, “and if it’s about making our country stronger for all Belgians and not splitting our country, then we can work together.”

That remains to be seen.

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