EUelections 2019: Elections in Belgium – towards another world record?

QUENTIN GENARD

Belgium is known over the world for fries, chocolate and the intricacy of its political system. It looks as if the country might be able to secure a new spot in the history books after the elections of May 2019. Belgians voted for the European, general and regional elections on the same day, and some of the electoral results were largely unexpected.

Belgium is a federal state. There is a central government by and large in charge of security and defence, international affairs and social security. There are also three communities and three regions. The three communities (French-speaking, Flanders and German-speaking) are particularly responsible for education. The three regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels) are supervising the economy, employment and energy.

These three levels of powers are strictly equal, which gives a large independence to all governments. For instance, the central government cannot intervene in policies set out by a region. It also means that international treaties or positions defended at the Council of the EU have to be agreed by all governments for “shared” policy areas. This can lead to political turmoil as famously showed by Wallonia with the free-trade treaty with Canada. It is through this lens of co-dependency that the electoral results should be read.

The other difficulty is the progressive fragmentation of the public and political space. The Belgian state and society were built on three separate pillars: catholic, liberal and socialist. Each pillar was represented by a political group, a trade union, a social security provider and some sort of education system (at least catholic / state-owned). But political parties started splitting between French-speaking and Dutch-speaking since the 1960s and the pillarization is not as relevant as it used to be. For instance, there are currently three liberal parties: one for Flanders, one for Brussels and Wallonia and one for the German-speaking part of Belgium. Therefore, it is hard to read the results because of the fragmentation of the landscape and the existence of many political parties.

General election

Belgium is an excellent proof that all politics is indeed local. The basic electoral unit for the federal parliament is the province (except for Brussels). This division of the territory leads to a clear split between Dutch-speaking and French-speaking citizens. Political groups only campaign in their own language and traditionally put forward candidates in constituencies belonging to their region (therefore there are very few French-speaking lists in Flanders and conversely).

This means there are at least two different but simultaneous political campaigns. All the debates in Wallonia are organised among French-speaking political groups, with very few exceptions. The themes of the campaigns can also differ. Immigration is traditionally a theme on which political parties run their campaign in Flanders while employment is more important in Wallonia.

The results are quite different in the different parts of the country.

Regarding the Flemish-registered political groups, the population has elected 25 representatives from the NV-A and 18 for Vlaams Belang. NV-A is a right-wing party campaigning for the independence of Flanders. Vlaams Belang is a far-right party mostly targeting anti-immigration feelings. The more traditional and centrist parties are far behind with the Christian democrats and the liberals with 12 seats each, the socialist party with 9 seats and finally the green party (8 seats).

While on the French-speaking side, the socialist party remains the strongest with 21 seats. The liberal party is second with 14 seats and the Greens are third with 13. The communist party was running a unique list in Flanders and in French-speaking regions and got 12 seats in total, mostly from Wallonia.

The outcome of the elections is thus asymmetrical. Wallonia is left-leaning while Flanders voted for right-wing populist parties. While the political representation differs widely, a study showed that Belgians actually share the same concerns. Most of the population self-identify as centrists. The political positioning of the different political groups gives the impression of more radical opinions while Belgians agree on many issues, from the North to the South of the country.

What’s next?

The King is formally in charge of the negotiation. He will appoint one or more policy-makers to conduct negotiation to create a coalition. It is impossible to predict the coalition that could emerge from this situation. The fragmentation of the political space is very deep, and most parties have the same weight.

This Dutchification of Belgian politics is not an issue by itself. But political parties in Flanders campaign on different themes than in Wallonia. Institutional reforms have limited traction in the South of the country while it is one of the majors ask from the biggest group in Flanders.

Forming a positive agenda can be complicated in this situation. The King appointed two statesmen (one French-speaking liberal and one Dutch-speaking socialist) to produce reports on the economic situation of the country and have bilateral meetings with the different political groups to identify a potential outline of a coalition. Then the actual negotiation starts.

These coalition are often wide and large. The current government is made of French and Dutch-speaking liberals, the NV-A and the Flemish Christian-Democrats. Until this government, at least two political parties from each side of the country used to be represented in the federal government because the government must be linguistically balanced. There must be as many French-speaking as Dutch-speaking Ministers.

This is why the coalition agreement that is drafted before the government is officially formed is fundamental. The different parties negotiate the different policies they intend on adopting in the next five years. It is not decided afterwards: there must be at least guiding principles in the coalition agreement in order to avoid surprises. There is little trust between the different political groups, so they prefer to negotiate everything beforehand, which leads to lengthy negotiation.

A repetition of 2010-2011?

The last major institutional crisis happened in 2010-2011. 541 days of negotiation were necessary to sign a coalition agreement. The outgoing government became a caretaker government with extended powers. Some decisions became too urgent to wait a new government, so the Parliament decided to support some decisions. This situation is not possible again. The King has warned that this cannot be the case anymore because the outgoing government is a minority government. The Parliament could support some of the actions by the government, but it can become very complex very quickly. Therefore, we must find an answer very soon.

21st July?

Belgium’s national day is on 21st July. This is the informal deadline usually used to form the regional governments. It is always a quicker process because the political parties know each other better and the results are easier to interpret. We should also have more clarity on the situation at the Federal level.

European Elections

Belgium can elect only 21 members in the European Parliament. There is no clear winner as Belgians are always a small delegation in all the political groups. But because of the “Dutchification” of politics, all the political groups that are likely to be formed later this week will include a Belgian delegation: from the far-left GUE to the far-right, including centre-left and right, liberals, greens, and the Eurosceptics. The voting behaviour for the European Parliament elections did not differ from the elections at regional and federal levels.

Conclusions

Belgium seems to have over-performed itself. The elections have produced Netherlands-like fragmentation and asymmetric results between the Nord and the South, despite the relative proximity of the two electorates. The constitution of a federal government will require time, patience and skills. Time is unfortunately a rare good as the care-taker government is not supported by a majority in the Parliament and the Prime Minister is rumoured to be on the short-list for the position of President of the European Council.  But Belgium being Belgium, the headline after the election was “Francophones still welcome in Knokke after landslide victory for anti-Walloon party, says mayor” – so I guess all is well?

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