By Tomás M. Creamer
This October, less than five months after May’s elections, Belgium has formed a new government, just in time to draw up a budget for 2015. Compared to over three years ago, this was relatively fast – last time, it took nearly 590 days after the elections were held. This was (and still is) officially the record for the longest time in the history of modern democracy for a government to be formed. Why does it take the Belgians so long to form governments? And more importantly, could it be said that this current government has been formed too quickly?
Well, for those of you who know nothing about Belgium, except that it hosts the EU and makes pretty good chocolate, this is a country that is starkly divided between two communities – the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the northern region of Flanders (who makes up a majority of the population, and happen to be the richest group in Belguim) and the French-speaking Walloons in the Southern region of Wallonia (a Post-industrial region, not unlike Northern England). There is a small German community in Wallonia, but they are a tiny, tiny minority, who often get pushed to the side when the two big communities bash heads.
Tensions between these two communities have a history rooted in the formation of the independent Belgian state, where a French-speaking elite actively discriminated against the Flemish majority, and encouraged the spread of the French language. Brussels, which was 95%-Dutch speaking in 1830 (when Belgium became independent of the Netherlands), is now approximately over 80% francophone.
By the 1960’s, this discrimination was gradually ended – mainly because by this point, Wallonia (the southern French-speaking region ) was starting to suffer from the decline in its heavy industries and coal-mining, which had previously made it the economic core of the country. Economic power was starting to shift from the Walloons to the Flemings, and so too did political power. Until October 2011, when a government was formed under Elio Di Rupo of the Walloon Socialist party, a Walloon had not served as Prime Minister of Belgium since 1974.
Unlike the North, though, politics is not exclusively divided on the basis of cultural groups, although no party in existence in Belgium operates in both the Dutch and French-speaking communities. Within each of these cultural groups, you have Liberal, Conservative and Socialist parties, along with green parties and, especially in Flanders, explicitly nationalist parties.
As a result, the political landscape in Belgium is highly fragmented – 13 parties have representation in Belgium’s 150-member parliament (elected in the most recent elections in May, 2014), and the biggest single party is the “New Flemish Alliance” (N-VA in its Dutch initials), which won 20% of the national vote (around a Third of the vote in Flanders, where it actually contests elections), and somewhat like the Scottish National Party, it is a pro-European party that favours gradual independence.
However, the Francophone parties have previously been reluctant to work with a Flemish Nationalist party, and the N-VA was shut out of power in the previous administration, which only had a majority among the French-speaking MPs, and had to rely on the outside support of a Flemish Green party to pass legislation that requires a majority in both communities.
While Belgium governments don’t tend to be explicitly “power-sharing” arrangements akin to the current administration in the North, the convention for the last while has been that a Belgium government must command a majority in both groups, and share out the cabinet posts equally between Dutch and French-speakers (the latter instituted by law in the Constitution). However, the last administration under Elio Di Rupo broke the convention, and so too does the current government.
Although headed by a liberal, French-speaking Walloon, Charles Michel (the youngest Belgian Prime Minister in over 150 years and a member of a notable political dynasty), the new government has faced criticism for not only failing to have a Walloon majority, but also for including the N-VA (which Michel had promised not to do during the election), whose explicit nationalism and support for right-wing economic policies does not go down well among many (generally left-leaning) Walloon politicians.
The program for government includes, among other things, lowering taxes, increasing the pension, and tightening immigration and asylum rules – the former two unsurprisingly raising the heckles of the country’s big trade unions. History is also against this coalition. The last French-speaking Liberal Premier, back in the 1930’s, only lasted 5 months in the job. No wonder this coalition has been dubbed “the kamikaze coalition”. Interesting times ahead in Belgium, to say the least.