General and Senatorial Elections in Belgium A review just days before the election

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Corinne Deloy,  

Fondation Robert Schuman,  

Helen Levy

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4 June 2007
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Deloy Corinne

Corinne Deloy

Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).

Robert Schuman Fondation

Fondation Robert Schuman

Levy Helen

Helen Levy

General and Senatorial Elections in Belgium A review just days before the elect...

PDF | 187 koIn English

7, 721, 322 Belgians are being called to renew the two Chambers in their Parliament on June 10th, i.e. the 71 members of the Senate and the 150 of the Chamber of Representatives. 121,817 Belgians living abroad registered for the vote – most of them from the district of Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde – which will take place on the 8th and 9th of June. Voting is compulsory; both for the citizens living in the kingdom and for those living abroad who are registered on the electoral rolls.

The Reform Movement (MR) would like the electoral rolls to correspond to the consular lists in order to increase the number of Belgians living abroad with the right to vote. Approximately 330,000 people are registered on the consular lists. The Socialist Party (PS) is opposed to this idea, arguing that "those who want to take an interest in the country have to show it." In fact the issue is obviously political: the Reform Movement would win most of the votes from the expatriates.

The election takes place through a complete proportional representation based on the highest average method for allocating seats (the d'Hondt method) in 11 electoral districts (arrondissements) except for those of Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde, Louvain and Nivelles. Each province has a number of seats proportional to its population. Hence, Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde has 22 MPs. In Wallonia, Hainaut has 19 seats, Walloon Brabant and Liège 15 each, Namur 6, and Luxembourg 4. In Flanders Antwerp has 24 MPs, Western Flanders 16, Eastern Flanders 15, Limbourg 12 and Louvain 7. 11 lists were registered in Wallonia for the senatorial elections (+2 in comparison with the elections on 18th May 2003) and 10 in Flanders (-2). For the Chamber of Representatives the record is held by the Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde district for which 22 lists are presented, followed by Hainaut and Liège (17), Walloon Brabant (14), Namur (12) and Luxembourg (10). In Flanders, 10 lists are standing in Western Flanders and in Limbourg, 9 in Antwerp and Louvain and 8 in Eastern Flanders. Since the decision of the 26th of May 2003, no one can stand both for the Chamber of Representatives and for the Senate, since the Mediation Court believes that this "would deceive voters who would not appreciate the usefulness of their vote since the Constitution prohibits people from being members of both Assemblies."

These elections have revealed the concept of "Prime Minister" in Belgium which was not much spoken of during electoral campaigns in the past. Indeed, until recently the issue did not arise since the position of Head of Government nearly always went to the leader of the Flemish Christian Popular Party (CVP). Some have occupied the "16 rue de la Loi" (the Prime Minister's residence) for many years: Wilfried Martens (1979 to 1981, then from 1981 to 1992) or Jean-Luc Dehaene (from 1992 to 1999). But Belgium cannot escape from the fact that electoral campaigns are becoming increasingly personalised.

Who will be the next head of the Belgian government?

This is the issue that concerns political analysts. Traditionally this position goes to the leader of the main political family or of the biggest party, which usually favours the Dutch speakers (the last French speaker to occupy this position was Paul Vanden Boeynants in 1978). In 1995 the Socialists won as the biggest political family but the head of government nevertheless went to Jean-Luc Dehaene, the leader of the biggest party. Just a week away from voting, Yves Leterme, president of the Flemish Christian Democrat Party (CD&V) and Minister President of Flanders is expected to succeed Guy Verhofstadt (Liberal and Flemish Democrats, Open VLD). The electoral auction is quite intense on the website (http://be-fr.unibet.com/) where Yves Leterme comes in first, in front of Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and Johan Vande Lanotte (Socialist Party-Spirit SP-A-Spirit), the Budget, Community Equipment and North Sea Minister. The Minister President of Wallonia, Elio Di Rupo (Socialist Party PS), and Didier Reynders (Reform Movement MR) are running far behind and even further behind is European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel (MR). The latter declared on May 24th that he wanted Guy Verhofstadt to remain at the head of the government and this even if the Reform Movement was to win more seats than the Liberals and Democrats.

Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, candidate for the third time running, is putting forward a new social pact and hopes to provide the next government with a social justice agenda which would include the creation of a time savings account, reductions in charges for all salaries below or equal to 4,000 euros, tax exemption for those who receive the minimum salary and the creation of a minimum service in case of public transport and/or airport strikes. He declares being in favour of regionalising employment but with strict conditions: "Let's not build walls between the regions, we should work together more." In 2003 the party had campaigned on the employment issue. "Objective 200,000" declared the party slogan at the time, while Guy Verhofstadt asked to be judged on the results of his fight against unemployment. He now says that his promise will be honoured. However, although unemployment is decreasing, it is still very high in Wallonia (11.3% of the working population).

The French speaking counterpart of the Liberals and Democrats, the Reform Movement, rejects any type of regionalisation of the social security and of the State's economic levers. "Everything that has been put forward to explain that increased regionalisation was needed, notably as regards employment, has not convinced us," indicated its leader, Didier Reynders. "For the Reform Movement's opinion it is quite simple: whether it is about regionalising matters or re-federating them, it has to be proved that there is an improvement," asserts the Middle Classes' Minister Sabine Laruelle, head of the list for her party in Namur.

Guy Verhofstadt and Didier Reynders want to decrease taxes levied on people to a total amount of 4.6 billion euro, by reducing the number of tax levels from five to three (25%, 40% and 50%) and by raising the exempt quota from 6 040 to 7 420 euro. According to Didier Reynders, a household where each person earns 30,000 euros annually would save 1,730 euros with this fiscal reform : "When we put forward measures to encourage the creation of activity, a decrease in taxes on companies, a decrease in social charges or the status of independents, we encounter strong resistance from the French speaking Socialists. The Socialist Party continuously speaks about helping the poorest, guaranteeing the social security and at the same time they are the ones who deal with social accommodation in an unacceptable manner and let people live in real dumps," he declared. The Liberals also hope to bring company taxation down from 25% to 20%. Guy Verhofstadt is quick to recall that the previous tax reform applied by his government swelled fiscal income between 1999 and 2006, since individual taxes had brought in 29% of extra revenue. In addition to this the Prime Minister puts forward the GDP surplus (0.3%) and promises a budgetary surplus of 1.1% of the GDP within four years.

As for each election since 1999 Louis Michel has written a "Letter to the Citizens of my Country", of which the European Commissioner will himself distribute 100,000 copies. The fifty-page document summarises the activities of the Reform Movement, maintaining that "on average we have given 4,000 euros per year back to households," and establishes the priorities of the next term in office: employment, appreciation of the working value, security and ecology. "If the Reform Movement was to become the leading French speaking party tomorrow, Wallonia would immediately become a key to the consolidation of the State. Separatism on the part of some Flemish trends is fed by the disastrous behaviour of the Socialists in the south," he stresses.

When interviewed about possible competition between himself and Didier Reynders the European Commissioners answered that he is "a perfect repeater of what Didier says." "I am his best ally. His soldier", adding that he thinks he will have been useful to the Reform Movement from 100,000 votes onwards. "It is clearly after that number of votes that I shall start to interpret matters in terms of taking responsibility," he concluded.

The Liberal Democrats and the Reform Movement recently drew closer to each other. "The Reform Movement is demonized because it gets along perfectly with its brother, the Liberal Democrat Party. The Reform Movement does not have the same position as its Flemish counterpart on institutional issues but we get along as regards buying power, tax system, etc. and we are proud to have Guy Verhofstadt as our Prime Minister", declared Sabine Laruelle in the daily newspaper Le Soir on May 21st.

The reform of the State is still the Flemish Christian Democrat Party's main priority since it believes that Flanders should have extended homogeneous competence. The party's programme is also focussed on the family and is suggesting 20 weeks maternity leave, two weeks paternity leave and the establishment of parental leave for a year for both parents (to be taken between the child's birth and its coming of age). Its French speaking counterpart, the Humanist Democrat Centre, would like to bring allowances for the first children up to 100 euros immediately. It is not logical for the difference between the allowance for the first child (80 euros) and that for the second (145 euros) to be this big since the expenses caused by the first child are inevitably greater. The allowance granted for the first child would then progressively be brought in line with the second. The party also wants to provide families and parents with additional time by giving them a paid family time loan of five years spread over their entire career. It is recommending the opportunity of partially transforming service cheques into hour loans for family services, for example for child care at home or help with the older children. Finally the Humanist Democrat Centre wants to give value to the role played by senior citizens and is promoting the writing of an "Intergenerational Pact" to encourage intra-family aid. "Belgium needs major reforms. It needs strong values, a sense of work and merit but also new solidarity, respect, generosity and a strong social security," declared the party's president, Joëlle Milquet, who has promised not to cumulate the leadership of her party and possible government responsibilities. The president of the Flemish Christian Democrat Party, Yves Leterme, declared that if he was called to government after the elections on June10th he would choose the federal level in spite of declarations that he made when he became Minister-President of Flanders in 2004 when he said he would only stay five years in power. "The position of Finance Minister has always been my dream," he maintained. In 2003, when Patrick Dewael (Open VLD) left the presidency of the Flemish government to join the government coalition in Brussels and become the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, he suffered violent criticism on the part of the Flemish Christian Democrat Party. However the Liberals and Democrats were not in the same position as the Flemish Christian Democrat Party is in now – it governs Flanders but it is absent from the federal level. "If I only obtain 26% and I do not succeed in gathering 400,000 to 500,000 preference votes I shall assume my responsibilities and put an end to my term in office as Minister-President," he also declared in the magazine Kiespijn 2007.

The Flemish Christian Democrat leader and the Prime Minister met on May 28th for a short 25 minute televised debate on VTM during which discussions were extremely tense. Guy Verhofstadt demolished the criticism that is regularly directed at him by his opponent for having sold State buildings, by reproaching him with having done the same in his region for a total amount of 251 million euros. Yves Leterme questioned the 200,000 jobs that the Head of State says he has created during his term in office and maintained that the merit for the Belgian economy's good health "mainly goes back to Flanders."

Soberly but surely the Dutch speaking leader of the Socialist Party is undertaking his campaign. "I am not the quickest of people, not the best speaker and I'm even less the most jovial. But when it comes down to bringing my team together to achieve results I am as good as anyone else," declared Johan Vande Lanotte, whose motto is "Never give up." Like the Christian Democrats, Elio Di Rupo's Socialist Party would like to increase families' buying power and to achieve this he suggests the elaboration of a pluri-annual appreciation of family allowances. The party would like to align allowances given for the first child (presently at 78 euro for fixed wage earners and at 60 euros for independents) with those of the second. "Tax system solves the problems of those who have the means but there are many families who are excluded from fiscal advantages. Blanket measures are necessary and not just fiscal ones, in order to cover everyone," explained Elio Di Rupo.

Elio Di Rupo and Didier Reynders met on May 11th in the offices of Le Soir for a debate that was broadcasted on the newspaper's website. The Socialist leader boasted the results produced by the coalition in power in Brussels as well as the work achieved by the Walloon government. For his part the president of the Reform Movement attacked the Socialist Party that he depicted as an old fashioned movement. Although the two men admitted they had to face Flemish demands after the 10th June, they did not manage to come to an agreement on these issues. "I am attached to the country's unity. Belgium is a value in itself and provides more than that," maintained Elio Di Rupo. "These are the things we share together: maintaining the unity of Belgium with the desire to employ this value in a better manner. There are things which we cannot give into and the Reform Movement refuses to modify the rights of the French speakers," answered Didier Reynders adding, "I believe that with Yves Leterme, we would have a discussion on the very existence of the country. And that is something I don't want." Finally, the French speaking ecologists of Ecolo count very much on the rise in the political arena and in the electoral campaign of the themes they have been defending for years such as political ethics and environment, to make a breakthrough. Ecolo, which has always been positioned on the left wing, is now trying to gain independence from the Socialist Party. "I claim that I belong to a party that is firmly attached to the values of solidarity, to the values of the left but, and I insist on this, it is an emancipated and modernised left. Ecolo as little brother of the Socialist Party is part of the past," declared Ecolo leader Jean-Michel Javaux. The Greens hope to win 12 seats in the Chamber of Representatives but the question of a possible entry into government after the elections is still a subject of debate.

Many 'small' parties are also running in these elections. Gérard de Sélys, a former journalist and a distant relative of Delphine Boël, herself the daughter of Sybille de Sélys-Longchamp and King Albert II, is running for the Workers' Party (PTB-PvDA). This far left party created in 1979 made a breakthrough at the local elections of October 8th 2006 by winning 11 seats in Flanders and 4 in Wallonia. The Committee for Another type of Politics (CAP) founded by former Secretary General of the General Labour Federation (FGTB), Georges Debunne, and dissidents of the Dutch speaking Socialist Party, Jef Sieeckx and Lode Van Outrive (former MEP) will be present across the entire country. The movement is quite well known in Flanders but is almost totally unknown in Wallonia. The Wallonia-France Rally (RWF) will be present in all the Walloon provinces, in Brussels and at the Senate. It will have to face the competition of Walloon, another party that favours the French speaking province's annexation with France. Belgische Unie-Belgian Union, (BUB) which is defending an opposite and united line and which claims to be a "centrist party for national union" is also putting candidates forward in several provinces.

On the 15th of May, Le Soir assessed the work of all MPs and Senators over the last term in office on the basis of parliamentary statistics (number of draft laws, appeals to the government, oral or written questions or speeches to the floor). The newspaper gave the best scores to MPs Melchior Wathelet (CDH), the head of his party's list in Liège, Benoît Drèze (CDH) a specialist on parliamentary issues and a candidate running in Liège who often created problems for the Ministers and Muriel Gerkens (Ecolo) who leads her party's list in the same province. Le Soir also praised Senators Francis Delpérée (CDH), head of his party's list for the Senate and Clotilde Nyssens (CDH), leading substitute candidate for the Chamber of Representatives. Finally, the daily newspaper praised the work of Herman De Croo (Open VLD), president of the Chamber of Representatives since 1999 and Anne-Marie Lizin (PS), president of the Senate.

The latest poll published in Flanders by the daily De Standaard and VRT (Flemish Radio and TV) on May 21st credits the Flemish Christian Democrat Party allied to the nationalist party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) with 29.9% of the votes. They have the lead over the Vlaams Belang (VB) which is due to win 20.7% of the votes. The ecologists of Groen (G) are due to obtain 8.4%.

In Wallonia, the Reform Movement is credited with 34.9% of the votes in a survey published by the newspaper L'Avenir/Le Jour/Le Courrier on May 23rd, which means a total turn around, with the liberals forging ahead of the socialists, which leaves many political observers dubious – the forecast still has to be confirmed by the ballot on June 10th. The Socialist Party is due to win 29.6% of the vote, the Humanist Democrat Centre, 20.4% and the greens of Ecolo, 11.7%. Finally, the Reform Movement is in the lead in the Capital city of Brussels, slightly ahead of the Socialist Party, with the Humanist Democrat Centre far behind.

Just a few days before the elections, the Flemish Christian Democrat Party that does not seem prepared to enter government without its French counterpart, appears to be the vital key to any government coalition.

General and Senatorial Elections in Belgium A review just days before the elect...

PDF | 187 koIn English

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