Belgium: a government some time in September, perhaps?

16 June 2010

If you thought that the formation of the current coalition government in the UK took too much time or was unduly complicated, have a look at Belgium. Poor Belgium, you may think, after the results of the general election on 13 June.

As anyone with a passing aquaintance of Belgian politics would know, the country has been stumbling from one political crisis to another. There are huge divisions between the French-speakers and the Dutch-speakers, or the Walloons and the Flemings. So, for a government to function well, and command support and legitimacy, it needs to enjoy a majority (32 seats among the French-speaking parties) or something close to it (45 seats among the Dutch-speaking parties) in both linguistic blocs. There are 150 seats in total in the Chamber of Deputies, but as indicated above, a simple majority of 76 would not do.

It would be much easier to form a government, if there weren’t so many parties, especially in Flanders. The largest party and the winner of the election in Flanders was NVA (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie) with 27 seats. However, there are 6 more parties: CD&V (Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams: 17 seats); Open VLD (Open Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten: 13); sp.a (Socialistische Partij Anders: 13); Vlaams Belang (12); Groen! (5); Lijst Dedecker (1). The picture is somewhat clearer in the French-speaking parties. PS (Parti Socialiste) won by gaining 26 seats. The other parties are: MR (Mouvement Réformateur: 18 seats); cdH (centre démocrate Humaniste: 9); Ecolo (8). PP (Parti Populaire / Personenpartij), which contests in both linguistic areas as one party, was elected for one seat in Wallonia.

In short, any federal government in Belgium will be formed of multiple parties, and multiple parties in each linguistic bloc. So any coalition formation inevitably takes time. On the Flemish side, NVA probably will need be a part of that government, as it polled around 30% of the vote in Flanders. There is another, practical and arithmatic reason: since there is a cordon sanitaire agaist the extreme-right Vlaams Belang, the number of seats of all other Flemish parties other than NVA and Vlaams Belang amounts to 49. All parties, except the solitary Lijst Dedecker member, need to agree to be in the government, if NVA were to be excluded. On the French-speaking side, PS and another party will need to agree to enter the coalition. You can play around with potential coalitions by going to coalition chooser on De Standaard website.

NVA ultimately wants to see an independent Flanders, and wants an immediate transformation of Belgium from a federal to a confederal state. What’s in the ‘con’ bit of the federation? It basically calls for more or less complete autonomy in internal affairs of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels, including public finances and social security. It calls for a speedy resolution to the B-H-V issue (see Belgian government resigns for details on B-H-V).

The leader of NVA, Mr De Wever, is thinking in terms of negotiations lasting until September to form a government. The British coalition building, by contrast, was quick and easy.