The party council of the N-VA is considering the successor of vice-chairman Valerie Van Peel, who will cut politics in 2024. The West Flemish Maaike De Vreese is a favorite. The confidant of Theo Francken must anchor the party more firmly in West Flanders, still a difficult province for the party. ‘Last time Francken’s support worked against her.’
Who will be the new right-hand man of chairman Bart De Wever? The party council of the N-VA is gathering about this today. That council is a kind of N-VA parliament with a colorful collection of local, provincial and national leaders. A vote is taken to decide who will become N-VA vice-chairman together with former minister Steven Vandeput.
The vice-presidency is a prestigious title within the party ranks. Together with the chairman and a key figure such as general manager Piet De Zaeger, both vice-chairmen map out the course of the party within the so-called Daily Board. ‘It’s the most inner circle you can have’, says Steven Vandeput.
The mood will come after the departure of Valerie Van Peel. In 2024, the MP will retire from politics, a decision she supported at the beginning of June with criticism of today’s political system. ‘The political system is stuck’, it sounded in an open letter, ‘Staying against immovable walls within it is no longer healthy for me.’ In the run-up to the 2024 elections, she decided to resign from her mandate as vice-chair sooner.
Her decision caused a small shock throughout the match. Van Peel never shied away from collaborating with MPs from other political parties, in particular former SP.A chairman John Crombez. With her passionate and occasionally emotional interventions in the Chamber, she also commanded respect outside the yellow ranks.
Moreover, her exit quickly followed that of that other vice president, Lorin Parys. Although he had been registered as a future leader within the party for some time, he switched to the sports world. As CEO of the Pro League, the Flemish nationalist is now at the head of the Belgian football competition. Parys was succeeded in April by ex-minister and Hasselts mayor Steven Vandeput.
And the election of Parys and Van Peel at the beginning of 2021 had already caused tensions. Because candidate vice-chairman Theo Francken had not received the necessary votes, it seemed as if the erratic party council wanted to prevent the N-VA from taking the harder line Francken, in favor of the softer approach of the duo Parys-Van Peel.
Francken also no longer applied as a candidate when Parys and later Van Peel gave up.
Francken did choose to support Maaike De Vreese in her roll to vice-presidency after the exit of Parys. De Brugse De Vreese worked in Francken’s cabinet during his period as State Secretary for Asylum and Migration. Today the ex-cabard is involved in the Flemish Parliament on similar issues such as transmigration and labor migration.
But despite the support of a topper like Francken, De Vreese did not make it. “More so,” says an insider, “his support may have just worked against her.”
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Today the cards are different. De Vreese’s only opponent is the nationally unknown Lieve Truyman, alderman in Temse and member of the party council. Francken’s poulain can’t really miss the vice-presidency.
According to De Vreese, the party does not need major ideological adjustments. ‘But with substantive proposals that convince, stimulate and put our party even more on the map,’ she says.
The fact that De Vreese comes from West Flanders plays to her advantage. That province has long been a concern for the party. N-VA patriarch Geert Bourgeois is 71 years old, Flemish party chairman Wilfried Vandaele is working on his last term of office. Younger politicians such as Izegem’s mayor Bert Maertens and Kortrijk’s alderman Axel Ronse remain relatively under the radar. Only a member of parliament, former vice-chairman and ex-minister Sander Loones stands out above the ground. ‘It is clear that we can use new people here in West Flanders’, says Vandaele.
If only to fill the void that Jean-Marie Dedecker will leave behind. Because the Middelkerk mayor was on the West Flemish Chamber list as an independent, the party was able to cash in no fewer than 40,800 votes in 2019. By way of illustration: Dedecker, as a list pusher, was good for 14 percent of all West Flemish votes for the N-VA. Only party leader Loones did better (44,000).
Moreover, the province is also politically problematic for De Wever and co. This has to do with the Ventilus project, which is intended to transport the electricity from wind turbines in the North Sea to the interior. While energy minister Zuhal Demir is interested in overhead power lines, many West Flemish mayors insist that they disappear at least partially underground. The opposition mainly consists of CD&V mayors, but with Bert Maertens and Wilfried Vandaele there are also N-VA critics.
According to Vandeput, it is logical that the party leadership aims for ‘the widest possible spread’. Although the cockpit of the party will now inevitably color ‘Flemish’. With the departure of Van Peel, the last member of parliament also disappears. With De Wever, Vandeput and De Vreese, three Flemish MPs remain.
Appointment with history
Nevertheless, the vice-presidency does not guarantee greater popularity. A source: ‘The function is what you make of it. Lorin Parys took up a lot of space politically, and was also given it by De Wever. But other vice presidents prefer to focus much more on practical matters, such as the local chapters.’
In addition, De Vreese still has to grow. At 38 years old she is still young as a politician, according to a member of parliament ‘she still has to eat some sandwiches’.
In any case, the party leadership is gradually shifting its attention to the party congress early next year. There, De Vreese will play a leading role as theme chairman of the ‘Warm Flanders’ section. Steven Vandeput: ‘I don’t expect any major price changes. The congress will sooner focus on our positions.’
The event should therefore especially put our noses in the same direction as 2024 approaches. That election year is described by De Wever as a new appointment with history, another chance to turn the country into a Belgium 2.0 together with the PS.
Maaike De Vreese can already start eating sandwiches.