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Statement or stunt? Ghent voters divided over mentally disabled candidate

A mentally disabled man running for a seat in Ghent's City Council has split public opinion in the Belgian city. Some say all people are equal, while skeptics say the story puts political correctness and tolerance in the city on a search for limits.

­Candidate Didier Peleman, 41, admits he has difficulties in speaking and writing, but says his condition should be no obstacle to a political career. Adopted by the Flemish Christian Democrats Party, he is hoping to get the desired seat.

“I've been active in community work for 11 years. Our party's slogan is “Everyone is included” so I want to be given the chance to be councilor, to express myself and help people with disabilities,” Didier Peleman told RT's Tesa Arcila.

He says he wants to encourage voluntary social work and make the city more “accessible” to people with handicaps by promoting the use of “simple language”.

The political party he represents makes no bones about their candidate, now well-known by the electorate.

The city of Ghent in Flanders is known for its tranquility and pretty medieval town center. But the story of the unlikely newcomer politician has made it into the headlines, stirring up the community.

“This is just a signal to the people in Ghent: also people with disabilities can run for elections,” insists the Head of the Flemish Christian Democrats Party Veli Yuksel. “They are in our community, they are here in Ghent. We cannot ignore them.”

It would be hard to find someone in Belgium who would say that people with mental challenges are not part of society. But some see the Christian Democrats Party’s move as inappropriate, raising questions on whether politicians have pushed the envelope too far this time.

“If he's physically disabled it's not ridiculous, but he has mental disabilities so that's another question, he may have problems with reasoning,” one Ghent resident told RT.

“I think he's not capable of making decisions for other people. I do voluntary work myself with mentally disabled people. I've got a lot of respect for them, but they have to realize themselves that they are not able to do everything,” another shared.

Other Ghent residents consider it nothing more than a publicity stunt.

“I know it's difficult when you criticize such a nice and good guy, but I don't want to criticize him as a person, I want to criticize his party for using him as a kind of political tool to get media attention at a time when we are close to the municipal election,” Ghent citizen Frederic Ranson argues.

Didier is well aware of the criticism, but he believes the energetic campaign he has spent leaves it for the voters to decide whether he is capable of governing people who are a little different from himself.