Election preview: Belgium

Belgium, at the heart of the European Union, goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament, at the same time as it votes for its members of the European parliament. That may eventually lead to a change of government – but don’t hold your breath, because after the last election, in 2010, the process of forming a new government took a year and a half, believed to be a world record.

Belgium is an unusual country. Here’s how I put it back in 2006:

Belgium is an accident of history: its northern border represents only the line that the Spanish armies held at the end of the Dutch war of independence. Logically, northern Belgium (Flanders) should be part of the Netherlands, while the southern half (Wallonia) should be part of France.

Logic, however, does not always rule in international affairs, and clearly many Belgians have developed a very strong attachment to their artificial country …

Over the last few decades, mostly under pressure from the northerners, Belgium has devolved major powers to its constituent regions and linguistic communities. One of the most striking symptoms of the division is that all of the major Belgian political parties have split into French- and Dutch-speaking entities, making coalition-building at the federal level a diabolically difficult task.

The outgoing Chamber of Representatives contains 12 parties: five French and seven Dutch. The main groups are liberals, Christian democrats, socialists and Greens (two of each), one Flemish far right party, and the separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA). Since 2010 the N-VA  has been the largest party, with 17.4% of the national vote and 27 seats, ahead of the French socialists with 13.7% and 26 seats.

The length of time it took to assemble a new government exceeded all conceivable expectations. Only in December 2011 did Elio Di Rupo, the leader of the French socialists (PS), become prime minister (and the country’s first Walloon prime minister since the 1970s) of a six-party coalition consisting of socialists, liberals and Christian democrats from both sides of the linguistic divide. It commanded a healthy majority of 96 of the 150 seats.

Why did it take so long? The main reason was that it was never just a matter of selecting personnel; the parties had to reach agreement on the constitutional issues that had been frustrating governments for a decade. Because that involved constitutional change, there needed to be enough consensus to command a two-thirds majority. The new government lacked that on its own, but the two Green parties, without joining the government, nonetheless signed on to a reform program.

It wasn’t just the need for a two-thirds majority, either; there was a general desire for a government as broadly-based as possible in order to withstand the economic and structural stresses that Belgium was under. A great deal of ultimately fruitless effort was spent in negotiations with the NV-A to try to induce them to enter the government – demonstrating both the love of consensus politics typical of the region and the lingering sense that the party with the most seats must have “won” the election and should therefore end up in office.

But it was found impossible to agree on a formula that NV-A and the mainstream French-speaking parties could both sign up to. As a result, although the government’s overall numbers were impressive, it narrowly lacked a majority of the seats in Flanders.

Apart from being deeply embarrassing for Belgians in general, the prolonged deadlock demonstrated the extent to which the nationalist or ethno-linguistic issue had come to overshadow everything else. Nor did it seem particularly likely that the measures that had been agreed on would amount to a long-term solution. At least as long as indifferent economic conditions prevailed, there was a continued risk that the majority in Flanders would decide that keeping Belgium together cost more than it was worth.

But the separatist vote in Flanders, despite the NV-A plurality, was still well short of a majority. The reforms of 2012 took the edge off separatist feeling, and the Di Rupo government soon found itself more focused on economic issues (although Belgium’s problems have remained mild compared to parts of southern Europe). The NV-A, still the strongest Flemish party in the polls, began to stress its economic policies, particularly its support of tax cuts.

This has raised – without answering – the question of whether the NV-A will be willing to join a centrist coalition government in the absence of any further constitutional change. It professes itself dissatisfied with the changes already made and remains committed to independence in the longer term, but it doesn’t follow that it would let that prevent it from taking a share of power.

The most recent polling shows the NV-A with about 30% of the vote in Flanders, with Christian democrats (CD&V), socialists (SP.A) and liberals (VLD) all in the mid-teens. In Wallonia and Brussels (officially bilingual but majority French), the PS and the liberals (MR) are the main parties, with a bit less than half the vote between them; Christian democrats (CDH) and Greens (Ecolo) are also in the mix.

Voting is D’Hondt-style proportional representation in each of 11 provinces (five for each community, plus Brussels), but the Dutch-speaking provinces are larger: they have 87 seats between them against 48 in Wallonia and 15 in Brussels, giving a Flemish majority of almost three-fifths. Despite the bizarre party system, voting is fundamentally simple, so we should have complete results on Monday. Try the official website here.

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