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The art of compromise: Why forming a government in Belgium is so painful

Dec 7, 2017
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Seven years on from record-breaking government negotiations, we examine how Belgium’s political landscape has changed

It may seem like a distant memory now, but seven years ago it looked as if Belgium might soon become a thing of the past.

The results of the 2010 general elections had forced the Flemish nationalists, N-VA – who won nearly 30% of the vote in Flanders – around the negotiation table with the francophone socialists, PS. It seemed like they would never find common ground over N-VA’s demands for extensive powers to be transferred from the federal government to the regional level. The negotiations dragged on and on. And after 289 days, Belgium – a wealthy, developed country of just 11 million people – beat a record previously held by war-torn Iraq, to become the nation that had gone the longest without a government.

“That was a wake-up call for us,” says Caroline Van Wynsberghe, a political scientist at the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL), looking back on that protracted political deadlock in 2010-2011. “That’s when we opened our eyes and said to ourselves: ‘Well, maybe Belgium isn’t eternal as a single state.’”

It ultimately took politicians 541 days to form a government. The sixth state reform that the PS, N-VA and six other parties brokered at the end of 2011 transferred major responsibilities in a range of areas including healthcare, employment and road safety to Belgium’s regions and communities.

Seven years after fears that Belgium would split were high, the country is in fact doing just fine. Demands for increased autonomy appear to have abated, in part because the current centre-right government – which includes the N-VA, the Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V), the Flemish Liberal Party (Open VLD) and the French-speaking liberal party (MR), and which has been in place since 2014 – does not have the two-thirds electoral majority needed to push through state reforms. But they are certain to resurface, Van Wynsberghe says, by virtue of the vicious circle she sees at work in decentralisation and the related demands for the devolution of powers. “The more competencies entities have, the more competencies they will want to have, and the more demands for autonomy they will make,” she explains, pointing out that this is a general dynamic that’s not specific to Belgium.

For Van Wynsberghe, the recent political crisis in Wallonia resulting in a new MR-CDH government –following revelations that local politicians received payments for board meetings they never attended – is a reminder of the important role played by political parties in Belgium. “Much more than the institutions, the federated entities or the regions, the political parties are truly this country’s most important actors,” she says.

With the dividing line between Germanic and Latin cultures, between Western and Southern Europe, running right through it, Belgium is perhaps best thought of as a country of two peoples living together like a separated couple – the Dutch-speaking population of 6.5 million in Flanders in the northern part of the country, and French-speaking population of 4.5 million in Wallonia in the south. Brussels, which is geographically in Flanders, is officially bilingual, but it is multilingual more than anything else, while the country’s 75,000 German-speakers are often either forgotten or mentioned only as an afterthought.

Unhappy marriage

The roles of Flanders and Wallonia in this unhappy marriage tend to be cast in contrasting terms. Flanders is wealthy, Wallonia poorer. Flanders is residually Catholic, Wallonia more atheist. Flanders votes centre-right, Wallonia traditionally centre-left.

According to Bart Brinckman, senior political writer at the Dutch-language newspaper De Standaard, the ideological division is partly explained by the different speeds at which the two parts of the country industrialised. Noting that Wallonia was already industrialised before World War Two, he says: “People are more socialist, less Catholic and more centre-left in Wallonia.” Flanders, in contrast, only industrialised after 1945. “Which means that socialists there have always had a much harder time competing against the Christian Democrats.”

Because Belgium does not have a federal constituency – except in Brussels, French-speaking voters can only vote on francophone parties during general elections, while Dutch-speaking voters can only vote for Dutch-language parties – the ideological differences across the linguistic divide also complicate efforts to form a government, like in 2011.

Belgians will again head to voting booths to elect representatives to municipal councils in 2018, while regional, federal and European elections will take place in 2019. Van Wynsberghe expects the 2019 general elections to be dominated by socioeconomic issues, noting that the country is still living with the consequences of the financial and economic crisis of 2008 and 2009. “We’ll have to see how much the federal government is able to get done by then,” she says. “If they succeed in quieting the linguistic demands that are in essence economic demands, maybe everything will work out just fine and maybe the outgoing government, if it again wins a majority, can be reconstituted.”

Still, she warns that the upcoming elections might also put the ideological divide between Wallonia and Flanders into even starker relief, given that the francophone communist party PTB is expected to do well in Wallonia following recent scandals in the socialist party. “What will be at stake might be pure maths: how can a government be formed with a majority at the federal level?”

Centrifugal federalism

What distinguishes Belgium’s political landscape are two idiosyncrasies packed into its federal structure. On the one hand, Van Wynsberghe explains, Belgium has a centrifugal federalism. “So things are removed from the centre to give competences to the federated entities,” she explains, pointing out that the Swiss and German federalism, for instance, are aimed at regrouping powers. “Belgium might be the first case of a dissociative federalism,” she says.

What also makes Belgium’s federalism distinctive, or perhaps bewildering, is that the country has superimposed two levels of powers – that is, the communities and the regions – whereas countries like the US have only states, Germany its Länder, and Switzerland its cantons. “We have a double federalism and we have communities and regions that are competent over the same territory,” Van Wynsberghe explains.

This means you have the Flemish Region, the Brussels-Capital Region and the Walloon Region, as well as the French Community, Flemish Community and German-speaking Community. The institutions of the Flemish Region and Flemish Community were merged after 1980, meaning that in addition to its two-assembly federal parliament, Belgium has five legislatures – not bad for one of the world’s smaller countries.

The regions are competent for matters that are related to their territories, such as urban policy, nature conservation and public housing, while the communities are responsible for matters that include culture, education and training.

'The tension will continue'

Pointing out that Flanders wants more competencies for the communities, while Wallonia wants more powers for the regions, Van Wynsberghe adds: “This tension will continue to persist as long as it remains undecided whether Belgium is a federation composed of only communities, or composed only of regions.”

Like the Netherlands, Belgium has an electoral system that divides up legislative seats in accordance with the competing parties’ performance during the elections – as opposed to the first-past-the-post system of the UK, the US and India, in which the winner takes all.

Although first-past-the-post systems offer clear majorities, they aren’t very democratic, Brinckman says, because a section of the electorate is left unrepresented. Proportional voting systems and the coalition governments they produce are, in his view, more democratic and they offer another advantage – or disadvantage, depending on how you look at it. “They have to find compromises, and that means you get a less polarised society because you have to take different persuasions into consideration.”

This tradition of finding compromises is also ingrained in Belgium’s fabric, Brinckman says. “Belgium has this tradition of compromise, and that is also very clearly related to the fact that we are a country with two linguistic communities that have to find each other in the middle. You have to find agreement; there is no other compromise.”

This article first appeared in The Bulletin autumn 2017

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