Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said he had work to do to lure back voters to his national coalition after local elections produced large gains for an extreme-right party and dealt a blow to his re-election prospects next year.
Verhofstadt sought to put a brave face on the losses of his Dutch-speaking Liberal Democrats across Flanders in northern Belgium in Sunday's voting.
"The average trend of the Flemish Liberal Democrats is not so good," Verhofstadt said. "We must acknowledge that the government has had a few bad months and we know that whoever leads faces the most fire."
He added, however, that he was "convinced the results ... will be different come next year."
Verhofstadt recently resolved a government crisis and infighting within his party which were both blamed for the growing unpopularity of his government.
Less than a year before parliamentary elections, his party lost votes mostly at the expense of the extreme-right Flemish Interest party and the Christian Democrats.
"We have gone so far ahead ... We have won spectacularly. We are the winners of this election," Flemish Interest party Chairman Frank Vanhecke said.
The party made big gains in almost all the 308 municipal councils across Flanders.
It expanded well beyond its traditional support base of Antwerp to win the most votes in seven municipalities outside the northern port city. It was another major victory for a party that's been scorned by the country's political class.
Full unofficial results from Antwerp, where the Flemish Interest party was hoping to remain dominant, showed that incumbent Mayor Patrick Janssens bucked the trend. His Socialists captured 22 seats compared with 20 for the extreme-right party on the 55-seat council, the results showed.
Flemish Interest party leader Filip Dewinter said his opponents could not claim victory, saying they only maintained the status-quo, with little gains over the last elections six years ago.
"We have not done so good" in Antwerp, Dewinter said, because "immigrants got the right to vote, that had an influence."
He claimed that other parties pushed measures to fast-track citizenship for migrants in the city, giving them the right to vote.
His party, which ran on an anti-immigrant platform, has been kept in opposition in Antwerp by an unlikely rainbow coalition whose only common cause is keeping the city out of the hands of the far right.
That scenario is likely to be repeated in other areas in the north, meaning that despite its strong showing overall, the party is unlikely to take part in governing, even in municipalities where it now has the largest number of seats on the city council.
Results in from across the country also showed losses for Verhofstadt's French-speaking Socialist partners in the southern Wallonia region, who are reeling amid corruption charges. The party also suffered losses in the capital region of Brussels, but kept control over the capital city.
Verhofstadt had hoped to stem major losses before national elections expected in either May or June and to keep in place his fragile coalition for a run at a third term in office.
Up for grabs in Sunday's voting was control of 308 Dutch-speaking Flemish municipalities and 262 French-speaking Walloon municipalities, as well as 19 mostly bilingual municipalities in the capital, Brussels.