In Australia, with a well-established two-party system, there’s rarely much doubt about who the governor-general should call on to form government after an election. In multi-party systems it’s not so simple, so in many European monarchies the practice is for the monarch to appoint a mediator, called an informateur (sometimes two of them jointly), who sounds out the different parties and conducts negotiations to settle on a likely majority coalition.
Once that’s been done, a prime-minister-designate, or formateur, is appointed, who can actually construct a government and present it to parliament for approval. If that fails, the process starts over again.
Usually this system works pretty well. But then there’s Belgium, with its intractable division between Flanders, the Dutch-speaking north, and Wallonia, the French-speaking south.
Belgium went to the polls in May last year. In the 16 months since then it’s gone through an apparently endless cycle of informateurs, formateurs, pre-formateurs, and individuals with nameless missions from the king (there’s a summary in Wikipedia). Two caretaker governments have held office, the second, under Sophie Wilmès, with an agreement from the opposition to grant it full powers to deal with the health crisis.
The time limit on that agreement expired last week, but Wilmès has continued in office on the promise that a new government would be ready to present to parliament next Thursday. And now at last there seems to be real progress, with the appointment of joint formateurs – Alexander De Croo from the Flemish liberals and Paul Magnette from the Walloon socialists – to report back to the king by Monday.
It’s still short of the record year and a half that the process took in 2010-11. But it’s nonetheless remarkable, particularly since the decision that had to be made was fundamentally simple: would the traditional mainstream parties accept the Flemish separatists, N-VA, in government or not?
In 2011, those mainstream parties – liberals, Christian democrats and social democrats, each in both Dutch- and French-speaking components – had put together a grand coalition government to keep out the N-VA and address the festering constitutional questions. It had a large majority overall, but needed the support of the Greens for a majority in Flanders.
After the 2014 election, things went the other way: liberals and Christian democrats linked up with the N-VA to form a broad centre-right government. But it was an unhappy experience; the N-VA eventually walked out in a dispute over immigration, and at last year’s election the coalition partners all lost ground, leaving them well short of a majority even if they were able to patch up their differences.
That left open the option of a return to the previous grand coalition. As I put it last year:
On the surface, that looks relatively straightforward. Liberals, social democrats and Greens have a clear majority between them – 78 of the 150 seats – and with a bit of horse-trading should be able to form a coalition, like the one that governs in neighboring Luxembourg. They could even broaden their base by taking in the Christian democrats, who in Belgium are just as centrist as the liberals.
And that appears to be exactly what is now happening: De Croo and Magnette are building a coalition of liberals, social democrats and Greens (two of each), plus Flemish Christian democrats, leaving N-VA on the outer.
But the problem is that voting patterns have shifted to the extent that that combination, while strong in the south, now lacks majority support in Flanders. The four mainstream Dutch-speaking parties have only 41 of the 87 seats between them; N-VA has 25, the far-right Flemish Interest has 18 and the far left the remaining three.
And that’s why it took so long. There’s no requirement for a government to have a majority in each region, but the other parties spent a long time and much fruitless negotiation to try to bring the N-VA within the tent – not wanting to further antagonise Flemish voters, and not wanting to admit, perhaps even to themselves, that the axis of political division had shifted from policy-based back to ethno-linguistic.
Beneath the complex and sordid manoeuvring, this is the underlying issue: does Belgium have a future as a united country? The mainstream parties have to decide whether they are going to continue trying to appease the separatists, or whether they will finally draw a line in the sand, knowing that they might be risking their country’s existence.