Analysis

Parliamentary Elections in Belgium, 13th June 2010

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Fondation Robert Schuman,  

Helen Levy

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12 May 2010
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Robert Schuman Fondation

Fondation Robert Schuman

Levy Helen

Helen Levy

Parliamentary Elections in Belgium, 13th June 2010

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A crisis that drags on in increasing bitterness

Early parliamentary elections will take place in Belgium on 13th June next, that is to say one year before the end of the present term in office. This election follows the dissolution of Belgian parliament on 6th May last after the collapse on 22nd April of the government coalition led by Prime Minister Yves Leterme (Flemish Christian Democratic Party, CD&V) which included, apart from the CD&V, the Socialist Party (PS), the Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Open VLD), the Reform Movement (MR) and the Humanist Democratic Centre (CDH). Open VLD indeed chose to leave the government after deciding that the time given to negotiations with regard to the electoral constituency of Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde had been exceeded. Its leader Alexander De Croo condemned a "breach of confidence". Open VLD's partners in government and political analysts believe that this attitude was governed by electoral considerations. It is supposed that it chose to provoke early general elections because they were increasingly ill at ease within the government coalition and by hardening their stance they were trying to stay their decline in the polls.

The Prime Minister could have replaced Open VLD by the Flemish Socialist Party (SP.A) but Caroline Gennez, the SP.A chair refused to do this. "The answer is no! This government is totally adrift and it is impossible to save it," she declared comparing the coalition to "a car that had suffered irreparable damage."

The Prime Minister deplored the "reciprocal intransigence on the part of both the French and Dutch speakers." Alexander De Croo said that the organisation of early general elections was necessary so that "the citizens could have their say." The chair of the Socialist Party Elio di Rupo qualified the start of an institutional crisis during the present socio-economic situation as "scandalous." The chair of the Humanist Democratic Centre (CDH) Joëlle Milquet, Deputy Prime Minister and Employment Minister criticised "the lack of any sense of general interest" on the part of Open VLD.

During the final session in the Chamber of Representatives, an MP from the Flemish far right, Vlaams Belang (VB) ended his speech declaring "Long live Flanders and Belgium go to hell!" - he then sang the official regional Flemish anthem, the Vlaamse Leeuw (Flemish Lion).

In June 2007 Yves Leterme was triumphantly elected with – an absolute record - lead of 800,000 votes in Flanders. No less than nine months were necessary for the Flemish Christian Democrat to be appointed Prime Minister (20th March 2008). A that time he said "five minutes of political courage" were necessary to achieve the abolition of the special linguistic rights enjoyed by the French speakers in the Flemish suburb of Brussels. Less than four months later on 14th July 2008 Yves Leterme was forced to resign after failing to have constitutional reform adopted. King Albert II then refused his resignation. On 19th December 2008 he finally left office as Prime Minister when he was suspected of having put pressure on Belgian justice for it to accept a restructuring of the Fortis bank, Belgium's main financial institution. The head of government was replaced on 28th December 2008 by Herman van Rompuy (CD&V). In July 2009 Yves Leterme was appointed Foreign Minister then he replaced Herman Van Rompuy who was appointed President of the European Council on 19th November. He governed until 22nd April 2010 when he was forced to resign again after the collapse of the government coalition he was leading. "I have a clear conscience," he declared as he left office, "I accept responsibility that until now the strategies that have been employed have led to nothing."

As he resigned the Prime Minister announced that he would not lead the CD&V list during the election on 13th June. "I put forward Marianne Thyssen to be the uncontested leader of the party during the weeks and months to come – not only as chair of the party but also as N°1 in the elections that are going to take place," he indicated. Marianne Thyssen, chair of CD&V since 2008 may become the first woman to govern Belgium if the party wins in Flanders. "I can tell you that in the Flemish Christian Democratic Party we do not support the end of Belgium but a significant, in-depth reform, we are not a party that pleads for chaos," she stressed.

A threat does however weigh over these elections. Indeed in 2003 the Constitutional Court delivered a decision that stipulated that the possibility for French speakers in Flanders to vote for French speaking lists outside of Flanders infringed the a priori intangible linguistic border principle. The judges asked for this issue to be settled before the next general elections (that took place on 10th June 2007). As a result this decision questions any national election resulting in it being be declared illegal.

Prime Minister Yves Leterme said on 7th May that early elections on 13th June next were legal but unconstitutional: "We have to admit that these elections and the law that governs them are unconstitutional, because no solution has been found for the electoral constituency of Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde. The elections will therefore be legal but unconstitutional." Some mayors of the Flemish communities in the Brussels suburbs have already warned that they will boycott the elections. The constituency of Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde elects 22 of the 150 MPs who sit in the Chamber of Representatives, the lower Chamber of Parliament.

The constituency of Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde, symbol of disunion.

Lying across the province of Flemish Brabant (Hal-Vilvorde) and the region of Brussels-Capital, the constituency of Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde) has 125,000 French-speaking inhabitants who enjoy certain electoral (the right to vote for French-speaking Brussels candidates in the parliamentary and European elections) and judicial (the right to use French in courts of justice) privileges (granted temporarily). Therefore the Flemish candidates in the parliamentary elections in Flemish Brabant cannot win votes in this part of their province which effectively is an unjust situation.

The Dutch-speakers want the entire Flemish area be run in one language only. The French-speakers on the other hand say that any French-speaker must be able to speak in his/her language where he/she lives. "A community is based on the principle of territory," analyses former Prime Minister (1992-1999) Jean-Luc Dehaene (CD&V). "The different handling of the constituency of Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde and the other constituencies is not justified. The status quo is not possible," declared the French speaking President of the Constitutional Court Paul Martens on 25th November last.

The Dutch-speakers want to split the constituency into two: Brussels on the one hand and Hal-Vilvorde on the other. The French-speakers are demanding an exchange of certain guarantees – which the Dutch-speakers are refusing – the maintenance of special electoral rights for the 65,000 people living in the communities close to Brussels and also the right to manage schools and libraries in Flanders themselves.

The Belgian Political System

The Belgian political system is based on a pillar system. Political parties emerged as a result of internal divisions within society, religious divisions (Church/State) primarily and then regional divisions (Walloons/Flemish) and finally social divisions (work/capital, workers/management). The political parties born of these divisions comprise true entities within the kingdom each managing a multitude of organisations (schools, insurance companies etc ...) which take responsibility for the members of the party and their families almost from birth to death. In exchange for their political loyalty the members of these various organisations find work, housing and other various social advantages. For their part the leaders of the different political movements share out fairly the positions available in the civil services. "Whereas in France the dividing line comes between two socio-economic trends in Belgium we are faced with an interlacing of several lines of division," says Pascal Delwit, political analyst at the Free University in Brussels.

This system worked perfectly for decades before collapsing in the 1970's. In the 80's two new political movements emerged: the ecologists (Ecolo and Agalev in Flanders) and the far right nationalists (Volksunie, Vlaams Blok which became Vlaams Belang, Democratic Front of French speaking inhabitants of Brussels, Walloon Assembly and National Front). These new parties have enjoyed increasing popularity. The Socialist and Christian Democrat Parties which rallied the majority of the electorate for many years now only win votes from a third of the Belgians.

The kingdom of Belgium was founded in 1830 after a merger between the former Austrian Netherlands and the principality of Liège. At that time although a majority of the population spoke Dutch the nobility and the bourgeoisie spoke French. The Dutch speakers are mostly Protestant (Calvinist) and the French speakers, Catholics. The domination by the French speakers lasted over a century before Wallonia began to decline and Flanders started to flourish economically in the 1960's. Tension between the communities led to several constitutional reforms (1970, 1980, 1988-1989, 1993 and 2001) which over the years have transformed Belgium into a complex federal State. Indeed the country has three regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Capital) and three linguistic communities (French, Dutch and German speaking) which cannot overlap. Hence the Flemish community brings together the Dutch speakers of Flanders and Brussels, the Walloon community rallies the French speakers of Wallonia and Brussels and the German speaking community comprises the German speakers living on the German border, i.e. around 70,000 people.

In 1933 the first Article of the Fundamental Law stipulated that Belgium had ceased to be a single unit State. New federal competences were transferred over to the regions which were already responsible for education, culture, social policy, housing, environment and the economy (external trade, agriculture) and the Regional Parliaments became institutions that were elected by direct universal suffrage. Finally the reform in 2001 provided the regions with fiscal autonomy. 70% of the Federal State's budget is distributed amongst the regions.

As a result of these developments Belgium no longer has any national political parties, which only enhances both linguistic and institutional differences. The political arena comprises French speakers in Wallonia, Dutch speakers in Flanders; the French and Dutch speakers now only mix in the region of Brussels-Capital. In Belgium therefore the electoral results are never calculated nationally but always regionally. The German speaking community has asked for the creation of a new region on the model of Brussels-Capital arguing that it is the only community in Belgium that does not have any constitutive autonomy thereby claiming a guarantee of representation of at least two MPs in the Federal Parliament.

The Flemish and the Walloons no longer share any national institutions apart from the royal family, the flag, justice and the army. They watch different TV channels, go to different schools and vote for different parties.

Parliament is bicameral. The Chamber of Representatives comprises 150 MPs; the Senate comprises 71 members 40 of whom are elected by direct universal suffrage within three constituencies: Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde (25 by the Dutch speaking college and 15 by the French speaking college), 21 are elected by the Parliaments of the Communities (Flemish Council and the Council of the French Community) and 10 are appointed by co-optation. The Senate also comprises ex officio senators: children of the King aged 18 and over and who have been sworn in as Senators. The dissolution of the Chamber of Representatives automatically leads to the dissolution of the Senate, therefore the Belgians will be voting on 13th June to renew both Chambers of Parliament.

The general elections take place every four years according to a system of integral proportional representation corresponding to the highest average (the Hondt system) within 11 electoral districts. The electorate can vote for all the members on a list, for one or several candidates on a list, for one or several replacement candidates on a list and even for candidates and replacement candidates.

In order to stand for election all political parties have to gather 500 signatures per district for the Chamber of Representatives and 5,000 for the Senate whilst the signature of two MPs suffices for the 'major' parties.

The general elections take place every four years according to a system of integral proportional representation corresponding to the highest average (the Hondt system) within 11 electoral districts. The electorate can vote for all the members, for one or several candidates on a list, for one or several replacement candidates on a list and even for candidates and replacement candidates.

In order to stand for election all political parties have to gather 500 signatures per district for the Chamber of Representatives and 5,000 for the Senate whilst the signature of two MPs suffices for the 'major' parties.

Each political party has to win a minimum of 5% of the vote in an electoral district to win a seat in Parliament. Since 2002 each party has to present lists comprising, to the nearest candidate, as many women as men. In addition to this the two leading candidates on each list cannot be of the same sex. IN addition to this since 2007 it has been forbidden to stand both for the Chamber of Representatives and for the Senate. The treatment of the small parties by the media is also a subject of dispute within the kingdom since appearances on TV channels are proportional to the results achieved by the parties in the last elections

It is obligatory to vote in Belgium and abstainers risk a warning (if they abstain for the first time) or a fine of 27.50 to 55 € set by the police judge. This sum may rise to 137.50 € if the offence is repeated.

11 political parties are represented in the Chamber of Representatives:

- the Flemish Christian Democratic Party (CD&V), led by Marianne Thyssen lies to the centre of the political scale. In June 2007 the party allied itself with the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), a nationalist party that was born after the dissolution on 19th September of the Flemish regionalist party Volksunie, chaired by Bart de Wever. The two parties separated in September 2008. Together they have 30 MPs;

- the Reform Movement (MR) is led by Didier Reynders, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and Institutional Reform; it has 23 MPs;

- the Vlaams Belang (VB), a Flemish far right organisation chaired by Bruno Valkeniers; it has 17 MPs;

- the Liberals and Flemish Democrats (Open VLD), is led by Alexander de Croo; 18 seats;

- the Socialist Party (PS), led by the Burgermeister of Mons, Elio di Rupo, with 20 seats;

- the Socialist-Spirit Party (SP.A-Spirit), led by Caroline Gennez, it has 14 seats;

- the Humanist Democrat Centre (CDH), is led by former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Employment and Equal Opportunities responsible for the Migration and Asylum Policy Joëlle Milquet, with 10 MPs;

- Ecolo, (Confederate Ecologists for the Organisation of Original Struggle) co-led by Jean-Michel Javaux and Sarah Turine with 8 seats;

- the Jean-Marie Dedecker list, a nationalist party led by the former trainer of the Belgian national judo team (1981-2000) who is also an MEP, with 5 MPs;

- Groen! chair by Wouter Van Besien, with 4 seats;

- the French National Front (FN), a Walloon far right movement founded by Daniel Féret has 1 seat;

Can Belgium survive?

"Belgium was created in 1830 and at the time was provided with an official language, French, but it is now dominated by a Dutch speaking majority. After having fought for equal rights the latter won the fight for federalism which is seen in Flanders as the means to undertake autonomous policies and at the same time take control federally of economic policies that favour the Dutch speaking part of the country. Long time the leading power, the cradle of the country's industrial development until 1960's, Wallonia also accepted and even demanded federalism - because it seemed probable that this would guarantee its recovery and that it would have autonomous institutions. It was also done to distinguish itself from a French speaking elite in Brussels which even today is accused of having let Wallonia down, of having left it to its demise and for having tolerated the "Flemish-ization" of the national institutions (...). An extended political crisis, for example if Belgium became ungovernable, may lead us to conclude that it would be better to separate," wrote political expert Vincent de Coorebyter in November 2007.

For the last seven years the Dutch-speakers have been fighting for a State reform which according to the French-speakers would bring the future of Belgium into question whilst the French-speakers are fighting to maintain the present federal model. After the parliamentary election the Dutch-speakers will certainly ask for the transfer of additional power from the State over to the regions and a redistribution of federal competences to the benefit of the latter. Recently the French-speakers have said they are ready to debate on condition that national social security is not included.

Also over the last seven years numerous nationalist parties have been founded: the New Flemish Alliance and the Jean-Marie Dedecker List which demand the creation of a confederate Belgium in which the Belgian state would gradually be deprived of all of its powers; there is also the Vlaams Belang which supports the independence of Flanders and calls for the immediate dissolution of Belgium as a country. The traditional parties have also become more extreme. "On the Flemish side only one party is still prepared to dialogue with the French-speakers, the Christian Democratic Party. The others have lost all patience," stressed outgoing Prime Minister Yves Leterme.

As for the Dutch-speakers the CD&V and Open VLD have already announced that they will not take part in a government coalition if the French-speakers do not commit in favour of institutional reform. The French-speakers do not present a united front on this.

"Contrary to the previous crises this time round it is impossible to plan the next stage. Since the start of the first compromises between the Flemish and Walloons in the 1960's each time there has been a kind of modus vivendi which meant that after the drama there would be agreement. This time however we have entered a stage after which we cannot guarantee that even the institutions will be run on a federal level. In short no one in Flanders wants a strong Belgium. But there are different degrees in this ranging from the hard and fast autonomists to the supporters of a confederate State. Amongst the French-speakers however there is clearly nostalgia about "old" Belgium and Belgian identity," analyses Benoît Rihoux, political scientist at the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve.

During the regional elections that took place on 7thJune 2009, the Socialist Party (PS) managed to retain its lead position in Wallonia with 32.77%, ahead of the Reform Movement (MR) which suffered a setback winning 23.41% of the vote. Ecolo made significant progress (18.54% of vote). In Brussels the PS came first within the French linguistic college with 33.35% of the vote just ahead of the MR which won 32.49% of the vote. Within the Dutch college Open VLD won 23.07% ahead of the SP.A, 19.46%, Vlaams Belang and the CD&V which won 17.51% and 14.85% respectively.

In Flanders the political landscape is dispersed and has grown more radical with the nationalist parties confirming their position. The CD&V dominated the elections with 23.5% of the vote. Open VLD suffered a dramatic defeat achieving its worst result ever: 14.8% of the vote. The SP.A also recorded a decline with 15.2% of the vote just ahead of the New Flemish Alliance, 13.06% of the vote. Vlaams Belang won 15.3% of the vote, (-8.7 points in comparison with the regional elections on 13th June 2004).

The parliamentary elections on 13th June next, which do not interest the Belgians greatly, are due to be another time for argument between the Dutch and French speakers. In no way do they represent a guarantee of settlement and do not seem to be able to provide new opportunities for dialogue between the two sides. Also beyond the country's domestic problems which come at a bad time, Belgium is due to succeed Sweden as head of the Council of the European Union on 1st July. "If the formation of a new government drags on it will not endanger the Belgian Presidency of the EU. We can act in lieu of the Belgian government as and when events occur," said Yves Leterme.

According to a poll by Dedicated Research, published on 5th May the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) is due to win in Flanders with 22.9% ahead of the CD&V which is due to win 18.9% of the vote, Open VLD,14.8%, SP.A, 14.2%, Vlaams Belang 12.5% and the Jean-Marie Decker List 3.9%. In Wallonia the PS is due to win 32.5%, followed by MR (21.1%), CDH (18.2%), Ecolo (17,6%) and the Front National (2.9%). In Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde the MR is due to win with 22.9% of the vote against 11.5% for the PS, 8.6% for Ecolo and 7.3% for CDH.

Source : Federal Portal of Belgium (http://elections2007.belgium.be/fr/index.html)

Source : Portail fédéral de la Belgique (http://elections2007.belgium.be/fr/index.html)

Parliamentary Elections in Belgium, 13th June 2010

PDF | 296 koIn English

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