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Friday, May 23, 2014

Belgium's general election: Will we see another 541 days without a government?

This Sunday, on the same day as the European Parliament elections, Belgium will hold a general election, electing both new federal and regional assemblies to govern 11 million people. The key question is how strong the Flemish nationalist N-VA, which is already the biggest political party, will perform this time around.

Background

The N-VA, a "eurorealist"  formation, wants to reform the country, a mini-EU/Eurozone composed of Flemish and Francophones, into a confederation (although it favours splitting it up in the very long term). It became the biggest party in 2010, but was ultimately excluded from a federal government because it appeared impossible to wrap up a coalition deal with Francophone parties, resulting in 541 days without a federal government.

A coalition of six parties led by Francophone socialist Elio Di Rupo eventually emerged. One big issue was that the coalition did not enjoy support among the majority of Flemish MPs in the federal Parliament. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who has been Belgian PM himself, once warned that if such a government would ever be formed, this would be “dangerous for the existence of the state”. His party, the Flemish Christian-Democrats, have now pledged not to enter such a coalition again.  This Sunday, it will become clear how voters have judged this.  For more background on the complexities, we refer you to this comment piece by our resident Belgian expert. 

Post-election scenarios

Scenario 1: Business as usual (most likely)

Opinion polls are notoriously unreliable in Belgium, but suggest that, in the Flemish districts, the N-VA will improve on their 2010 showing, while the three traditional parties will remain broadly at the same level. If they again fail to command a majority of Flemish seats but, nevertheless, prefer to avoid complicated talks with the N-VA, the Flemish Christian-Democrats will need to break their promise, something which they may do if one of them becomes PM and the incumbent Elio Di Rupo is offered a job in the European Commission, for example. Di Rupo's Socialist Party is expected to suffer considerable losses, but would easily remain the biggest party in the Francophone part of the country.

Scenario 2: A federal government which includes the N-VA

Bart De Wever, the N-VA's leader, has himself indicated he's willing to enter a federal government and not make new demands to decentralise powers, if centre-right policies are implemented. The N-VA hopes this pressure may drive the Francophone socialists to return to their historic demands for more decentralisation (in his maiden speech to the Belgian Parliament in 1988, PM Di Rupo himself proclaimed that "there are no Belgians", while demanding "a confederal Belgium").

Such a federal government without Francophone socialists (who have been in power since 1988) but with Francophone liberals and Christian-Democrats is an unlikely scenario, also because this time around it would probably not command a majority of the Francophone seats in Parliament. However, if the N-VA does better than expected, this scenario could materialise.

Scenario 3: Prolonged stalemate 

Last but not least, there is the scenario of another one and a half years of stalemate, prolonged to an indefinite period without a federal government, which could result in negotiations on an eventual divorce. We rate this as very unlikely.

As you can see, it's complicated.

1 comment:

Rik said...

1. Here the populist are around the flag of Flemish (semi-) independence.
You have general discontent;
you have a proper leader (the Bartman); and
you have a flag/topic (Flanders).
all ingredients for an populist party present.

2. This means there is little immigration stuff (relatively) and anti-EU.
Their leader won the most clever Belgian contest if I am not mistaken so portraiing him as an idiot is a no go.

3. Imho the Flemish are complete morons to pay an awful lot for the Wallon. They simply look way too friendly.

4. The Wallon have little populist as they need the current leftist parties to defend the transfers from the North.
When they would split it is party over and they actually would have to start to work themselves (can you imagine).

5. Splitting countries in regions looks to me the way forward for a lot of places. There are a lot of basically permanent basketcases that remain that way because there are transfers.
South Spain, South Italy, Wallon, E Germany to name a few.
UK basically everybody outside Larger Londen. Ulster is a black hole and Wales and much of Northern England isnot much better.
Seems like a pretty good idea to dump the problem with the ones that are causing it.

6. Brussels in an issue. A lot of entitlement receivers and few taxes because of the EU status of many people.
If it is split off as a 3rd or 4the companies/larger taxpayers will move to Flanders which is simply the suburbs.

7. Hard to understand why Flanders is not playing hard ball. The Bartman probably would do it if he had enough support. But there is still 10 to 20% lacking there.

8. Will make a nice testcase for Scotland however if it would split. Would the EU let its capital out? Hard to believe.

9. Looks anyway an unsustainable situation. (Nearly) Highest taxed country in the EU, where the Dutch speaking working part pays say 5% extra tax (over their whole income) to finance people they donot really like. And who use the transfers to change nothing to that situation.