Belgian government resigns

26 April 2010

The constitutional crisis that had been engulfing Belgian politics has resulted in the resignation of the government. The prime minister, Mr Yves Leterme, had offered to resign last week after one of the governing coalition parties, Open Vld, withdrew from the government, but the King was trying to find a way out of it, without a prolonged power vacuum or a new election. But the intermediary, Mr Didier Reynders resigned his post, and the government’s resignation became inevitable.

Belgian politics is positively Byzantine, and it’s really hard to understand let alone explain the system as an outsider. I probably have made mistakes in the following descriptions, so please let me know if I’ve missed something or made errors. Belgium has layers and layers of parliaments and governments. There are the federal bicameral parliament and the federal government for the whole of Belgium. It is this federal government that collapsed today. There are three regional governments, Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels. And there are three communities with representitives and executive offices which are based on languages and represent the Dutch, French and German-speaking Belgians. Naturally there are provincial representations and councils and local communes.

The reason for the collapse of the second Leterme government (Leterme II) is B-H-V, which stands for Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde (in Dutch). The lower chamber of the parliament, the chamber of the representatives, is elected on a system based on proportional representation (the D’Hondt method). The provinces are the constituencies, except for Brussels and Vlaams Brabant (Flemish Brabant). Vlaams Brabant is divided into two: roughly the eastern half constitutes a constituency of its own named Leuven, and the western half is joined with Brussels to form B-H-V. It’s the H-V bit of B-H-V.

B-H-V therefore straddles two regions, Brussels and Flanders, and creates an anomaly. Brussels is surrounded by Flanders, but many more people speak French than Dutch. People are moving out of Brussels into surrounding areas in Flanders, and many of them are French-speakers. This migration is causing conflict between the established Dutch-speakers and newly arrived French-speakers. Once the number of speakers of a minority language reaches 30%, then the commune needs to provide the services in that language. Such communes are known as communes à facilités or faciliteitengemeenten and there are 6 of them in the Vlaams Branbant part surrounding Brussels. As B-H-V forms a single constituency, French-speakers in the Dutch-speaking Flemish province of Vlaams Brabant can vote for a Walloon party based in Brussels. Across the Flanders-Wallonia border, the situation is different, since Dutch-speakers in the French-speaking Brabant Wallon do not have the same opportunity to vote for a Flemish party. This anomalous situation was judged to be unconstitutional, so some sort of reform was necessary.

The Flemish parties want to split B-H-V, and reunite the H-V bit with Leuven to create a single constituency overlapping with the province of Vlaams Brabant, but the Walloon parties have been fiercely opposed, since such reform would deprive the French-speakers in Vlaams Brabant the ability to vote for Walloon parties. Given the 5% barrier required to gain a seat within that constituency, even as a bloc, French-speakers won’t have much representation. Naturally Walloon parties will be at advantage in predominently French-speaking Brussels, but it’s not a trade-off they are too keen on. Futhermore, the French-speakers fear that there will be more discrimination against them once this happens. There is a stalemate and efforts to seek a resolution have thus far been without success.

One of the governing coalition parties, Open Vld (Open Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten) lost patience and set a deadline last week to solve this problem, but the deadline passed without a satisfactory outcome. That prompted the party to leave the coalition and trigger this crisis.

There are reports that a general election may take place in June. Such an election raises serious constitutional and legal problems. Could a parliament – and government – returned on an unconstitutional electoral system be legitimate? That situation would also be problematic, if the B-H-V representatives are excluded, because the constituency is unconstitutional, since that would deprive the residents of B-H-V of political representation. Can Belgium survive this bout of constitutional crisis? No one seems to be sure.