It’s not just in the United States that the coronavirus Covid-19 is having an impact on electoral matters. It’s also making a big difference in Europe, including several countries where elections have already been held but formation of a new government takes time. Today we look at two examples.
Slovakia went to the polls two and a half weeks ago (see my report here). As expected, Igor Matovič, the head of the anti-corruption party Ordinary People, was asked to form a government after his party won a clear plurality.
He set out to form a coalition with another three parties: two of them broadly liberal, Freedom & Solidarity (Eurosceptic) and For the People (pro-European), and one right-wing conservative, We Are Family. Between them, the four have a large majority, with 95 of the 150 seats.
And he succeeded in remarkably quick time. Last Friday the four party leaders announced that they had reached agreement on the shape of a new government, and the ministers were officially named yesterday. They are due to be sworn in on Saturday.
The 13 days of negotiations are said to be a record for speed in Slovakia, and there’s no doubt that the coronavirus was largely responsible. Everyone seemed to agree that this was not the time to waste additional days or weeks in haggling over positions in the new government.
While the coalition is ideologically diverse, it is united in its desire to break with the previous centre-left government and its authoritarian leanings. Even that, though, is now subordinate to the public health crisis: Matovič is quoted as saying that “the only interest of the new government for now is to deal with the coronavirus situation.”
But there was no such consensus in Belgium, which went to the polls last May and has been trying to form a government ever since. You can read my July report on the negotiations here.
The then caretaker prime minister, Charles Michel, was subsequently appointed to the presidency of the European Council, so he was succeeded by his colleague Sophie Wilmès, also from the French-speaking liberal party – still as a caretaker, but the first female prime minister of Belgium.
Prior to that, the two informateurs (senior politicians delegated by the king to conduct coalition negotiations) had thrown in the towel in October after 130 days. They maintained, however, that there was possible common ground to form a majority between the two centre-left parties, the two Greens parties and the Flemish separatists or N-VA.
King Philippe, perhaps with some understandable scepticism about this claim, then took a step back and appointed a pair of preformateurs, Geert Bourgeois (N-VA) and Rudy Demotte (Francophone centre-left), to conduct exploratory talks. That lasted another month and also ended in failure.
More negotiations over the winter, with more informateurs, failed to break the deadlock. The centre-left and liberals seem unwilling to pay the price necessary to bring the N-VA within the tent, but also unable to agree on a sufficiently broad alliance to keep them out.
Last week, under the impetus of the coronavirus, there was another round of talks with a view to some sort of unity government, which again failed. The best that could be done was an agreement to vest full powers in the Wilmès government, to avoid – on a temporary basis – it being hamstrung in its response to the crisis by its lack of a parliamentary majority.
So, two weeks in Slovakia, ten months and still counting in Belgium. Are the central Europeans really that much more efficient or less stubborn than their western counterparts? Or is there something special about Belgium?
While it’s far from the only country to have had problems recently, Belgium’s cross-cutting of linguistic and ideological divisions really does seem to create a unique level of difficulty.
It’s clearly possible to put together a mainstream majority coalition excluding the N-VA, but such an arrangement would lack legitimacy in the Flemish north, thus worsening the division between the two halves of the country. Conversely, if the N-VA moves to the centre to make itself acceptable to the other parties, it risks losing votes to the extremist Flemish Bloc on its right flank.
The politicians have agreed to put this dilemma on hold for up to six months, until the coronavirus is dealt with. Perhaps in that time they will develop a new talent for co-operation.