Category Archives: Flanders

Belgium 2012

Municipal and provincial elections were held in Belgium on October 14. All municipal councils, provincial councils but also district councils (in Antwerp) and OCMW/CPAS councils (social services) in some bilingual municipalities were up.

Belgium last held a federal election in June 2010, but it did not get a federal government until December 2011 (541 days after the original election). For the past few years, Belgium’s “existential crisis” had been deepening with Flanders drifting further and further away from Wallonia, with the question of the “breakup of Belgium” becoming increasingly relevant. The June 2010 federal elections just rendered turned the problem into a major political crisis. In Flanders, the right-wing nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) – which seeks the independence of Flanders – won over 28% of the vote and became the largest party both in Flanders and in the country as a whole. The N-VA’s dramatic entrance onto the Belgian political scene in 2010 was a political earthquake which had major repercussions. The various other parties were unable to reach an agreement to form a government, the main blockage points being a constitutional reform (entailing further devolution of power from the federal government) which most Flemish politicians demanded.

Finally, a new government was formed in December 2011, led by Elio Di Rupo, the leader of the Francophone Socialists (PS), with the participation of the Francophone and Flemish Socialist, Liberal and Catholic parties (PS, sp.a; MR, Open VLD; CD&V, cdH respectively). The parties had reached an agreement on economic/fiscal policy (spending cut and tax hikes – economic growth has slowed and the country’s debt is up to 99% of GDP) and constitutional reforms which includes splitting up the controversial BHV electoral district, replacing the elected Senate with an unelected one representing region sand communities  and devolving more powers (including employment) to the regions and communities. A few months in, the new government has faced some social unrest in the form of strikes and movements against some controversial austerity measures and a pension reform.

These municipal and provincial elections come six years after the last ones, a period in which Belgian – especially Flemish – politics have seen huge changes. The eruption of the N-VA in 2010 and its subsequent establishment as the hegemonic party in Flanders (it is polling in the mid to high-30s in Flanders, and the CD&V is seemingly locked in a death spiral) have obviously changed Flemish politics a whole lot. The far-right Vlaams Belang (VB), previously the dominant force of radical Flemish nationalism, has collapsed, collateral victim of the N-VA. The Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V), the dominant party in Flanders for most of the past century, has also been severely hit by the N-VA’s success. At the turn of the new century, the Flemish Christian Democrats had adopted a more nationalist tone and it had been somewhat successful in building up a nationalist/regionalist appeal. However, the N-VA has been siphoning off nationalist voters away from the CD&V.

These local elections were crucial for the N-VA to assert its new political hegemony, at all levels of government in Flanders. However, local elections follow a different dynamic. Rural Flanders is the powerbase of the CD&V and it still controls a lot of municipalites there, which have traditionally been the backbone and source of the party’s strength. The situation is further muddled by the dominance of local parties and coalitions of various sizes in a number of municipalities in Flanders (and Wallonia), including a large number of places where the CD&V and N-VA still rule together. These factors made these elections more challenging and slightly more difficult for the N-VA.

The major race in Flanders and in Belgium as a whole was in Antwerp. The largest city in Belgium, governed by the Socialists since 1944 (with the exception of a few months in 1976), had been in yesteryears the scene of high-profile battles between the Flemish Socialists (and their coalition partners, usually the Christian Democrats and Liberals) and the VB. In 2006, sp.a mayor Patrick Janssens (in power since 2003) managed to defeat the VB’s leader, Filip Dewinter. The VB’s result in 2006 – 20 seats and 33.5% (against 22 for the sp.a) – was seen, back then, as underwhelming and eventually precipitated the VB’s downfall.

This year, the contest opposed Bart de Wever, the leader of the N-VA, to mayor Patrick Janssens (sp.a). Bart de Wever’s decision to try to wrestle control of the country’s largest cith away from the sp.a and their allies (the CD&V and Open VLD) effectively nationalized the race. To counter the N-VA, Janssens’ sp.a formed a common list with the CD&V, which has been the sp.a’s main coalition partner in Antwerp in the past few decades. The result in Antwerp were as follows:

N-VA 37.73% winning 23 seats
sp.a-CD&V 28.58% winning 17 seats
VB 10.21% (-23.3%) winning 5 seats (-15)
PVDA+ 7.97% (+6.12%) winning 4 seats (+4)
Groen! 7.95% (+3.24%) winning 4 seats (+2)
Open VLD 5.54% (-4.16%) winning 2 seats (-3)

The result was an historic and significant victory which turned the night, regardless of the N-VA’s performance elsewhere, into a major success (and breakthrough) for the N-VA. With 37% of the vote, the N-VA ate up the majority of the VB’s old base (Filip Dewinter said that the VB had sown the seeds for this event and that the N-VA was the one who was reaping their fruits) but also made significant inroads with the electorate of the other parties, first and foremost the CD&V (in coalition with the N-VA in 2006, it had won 11.2%). This is the new state of affairs in Flanders: the N-VA has become what the VB was never able to become – the hegemonic party of Flemish nationalism which has attracted the support of more nationalist supporters of the other parties. This has hurt the CD&V, which had adopted a significant nationalist/regionalist/confederalist attitude in the past decade, the most; but it has not been without its effects on the Open VLD and the sp.a. For the Open VLD, justice minister Annemie Turtelboom (their top candidate) was unable to stop the bleeding. Only the Greens, for understandable reasons, have been spared by the N-VA’s irresistable rise to the top.

Bart de Wever will become mayor of Antwerp, most likely in coalition with the sp.a (though without Janssens, who reiterated that he would not serve in a coalition under de Wever, and will probably retire). He has not ruled out talking with the VB, but it is unlikely that he will form a coalition with them – too controversial (unlike the VB, the N-VA has a more respectable aura and it tries to maintain this) and probably too unstable. Bart de Wever has pledged, I believe, to serve out his six year term. With his election, this most likely means that the N-VA will need to choose a new leader, a tricky process given that its bench seems pretty thin on leadership material. However, de Wever is not out of national politics – he can use this new position to further boost his national standing. Indeed, in his victory speech, he made clear references to the federal government and the national scene. This victory allowed him to reiterate his claim that the government – which he styles the “tax government” (a reference to a traditional complaint on Flemish nationalists, that Flanders subsidizes Wallonia and pays more in taxes than it receives) – does not enjoy the support of a majority of Flemish voters.

The other success of the night was the PVDA+, a small far-left party active on both sides of the linguistic border which did very well in both regions. The PVDA+ (known as the PTB+ in Wallonia) had hitherto been one of those negligible far-left groupings which have had no success at the national level. While local ballots are usually kind to those type of parties, their emergence is quite interesting. It likely drained more votes away from the sp.a, likely left-wing supporters unhappy with the party’s participation in a government oriented towards budget cuts and austerity-type policies.

In Ghent, the sp.a was comforted by the easy reelection of mayor Daniël Termont (sp.a), his party won an absolute majority in the council with 45.5% against 17.1% for the N-VA.

In Bruges, the sp.a will take the leadership of a coalition with the CD&V with Renaat Landuyt as mayor. The Socialists won the most seats (14, gaining 2, and 26.8%) against 13 (26.6%) for the CD&V, allowing the sp.a to become the senior rather than junior partners. The N-VA won 19.8% and 10 seats.

The sp.a held on in Leuven/Louvain, despite losing 3 seats (they now hold 16). The N-VA placed second with 19% and 9 seats. The coalition between the sp.a and CD&V has been renewed.

The N-VA became the largest party in Aalst, with 31% and 15 seats against 17.3% and 8 seats for the CD&V led by the incumbent mayor. The VB, which had placed first in this former textile town in 2006, collapsed from 22.8% to 10.8%. The Liberals and Socialists also suffered smaller loses. The N-VA also won in Sint-Niklaas, taking 28.5% and 13 seats against 12 seats for the sp.a, the largest party in 2006. The VB, again, was the main victim, falling from 26.6% to 11.7%.

In Kortrijk/Courtrai, however, the CD&V held its ground pretty well, winning 33% and 15 seats. The N-VA only placed third with 16.3% and 7 seats. However, the Open VLD – second with 21% and 9 seats – has announced that it will form a coalition with the sp.a and N-VA to topple the CD&V, which have governed the city for 150 years. The CD&V is livid, denouncing an “anti-democratic” coalition.

The sp.a was shaken up in Oostende, where the party had won over 45% and 20 seats in 2006. This year, the Socialists are down 13.5%, to only 32% and 15 seats. The N-VA, with 22.7% and 10 seats placed second, benefiting from a major dip in the VB vote. The incumbent three party red/blue/orange majority should, however, hold on.

The mayor’s list, composed of the sp.a, Groen! and independents in Hasselt has held on, with 33% and 15 seats and will govern with the CD&V, which came third. With 25.5% and 11 seats, the N-VA was a good second.

Finally, in Ypres, the CD&V-N-VA cartel led by former Prime Minister Yves Leterme won 52.8% and 21 seats.

In the provincial councils in Flanders, the N-VA was quite successful. The CD&V held on to a tight plurality in Limburg and West Flanders, but the N-VA became the largest party in all other provinces. In Antwerp, the N-VA won 36% and elected 27 councillors, up from the 30.7% it had won in the province in the 2010 federal elections. In the Flemish Brabant, the nationalist party took 26% and 19 seats against 19.5% for the CD&V. In East Flanders, with 26% and 21 seats, the N-VA fall a bit below what they won in 2010 but they are far ahead of the CD&V (19.8%) and Open VLD (19.3%). Only in Limburg and West Flanders did the CD&V outpace the N-VA, but only with a one seat edge over them.

Wallonia and Bruxelles-Capitale

Wallonia and the capital region were not as interesting, but did feature a few noteworthy contests. In Brussels, first and foremost, the PS has maintained its hold, with 29% and 18 seats against 18% and 17.9% for the cdH and MR-Open VLD respectively. However, the cdH, despite a strong result (2006 was an exceptional result, largely maintaining it this year is excellent), will be out of the new coalition and be replaced by the MR. The N-VA won 4.3% and 1 seat. The FDF (Fédéralistes Démocrates Francophonesa former member of the MR which quit in 2011 after the MR accepted splitting up BHV) won 7.6% and 3 seats.

In the capital region, Schaerbeek mayor Bernard Clerfayt (FDF) won a third term, but with a reduced majority, shedding four seats. The PS, led by Laurette Onkelinx, maintained itself at its 2006 level, which had been an historic result for the PS in a town where it had been weak. In Anderlecht, meanwhile, the PS gained four seats to win 21, placing comfortably ahead of the liberal mayor’s list. An “Islam” list won 4% and 1 seat in the town, it also took a seat in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, where the MR has ended 20 years of PS rule. While the PS mayor’s list placed first with 16 seats, down 3; the liberals (15 seats) have formed a coalition with the cdH and Ecolo. Controversy, meanwhile, in Watermael-Boitsfort, where the co-president of Ecolo Olivier Deleuze will become mayor after a deal with the MR and cdH which will topple mayor Martine Payfa (FDF), whose list topped the poll. The leader of FDF, Olivier Maingain, has retained his seat in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert with over 55% of the vote and an absolute majority.

In Wallonia, the PS has roared back in its Charleroi stronghold, where the party had taken a mighty tumble in 2006 in the wake of major scandals. The PS, led by Paul Magnette, won 47.7% and 30 seats, giving it an absolute majority. The MR and the far-right (the FN) were the main victims, though cdH and Ecolo suffered loses as well. The far-left PTB+ won 3.4%, enough for one seat.

In Mons, another working-class PS stronghold in Hainaut, the PS list – led locally by Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo – won 55.2% and 29 seats. In Tournai, the PS has maintained its hold and will continue its coalition with the MR, which gained 2 seats.

In Liège, the PS retained its 2006 level (38%, 22 seats – up 1) while the MR lost 3 seats. The PTB+, particularly strong in Liège and its old mining hinterland, took 6.4% and 2 seats. Indeed, in Herstal, an old industrial town and PS stronghold, the PTB+ won 14% and 4 seats (up 2), a distant second behind the PS which held its huge absolute majority (51% and 20 seats), led by Frédéric Daerden, the son of the late Michel Daerden (known for showing up drunk to an interview with his son on the night of the 2006 local elections). Very similar deal in nearby Seraing.

In Namur, cdH mayor Maxime Prevot is happy, the cdH have won an extra 3 seats, seemingly at the expense of Ecolo who lost 4.

Not any interesting stuff in the provincial councils, all parties largely won what they had won back in 2006.

For those looking for more results, La Libre Belgique has an interactive map which includes the entirety of Belgium.

While south of the linguistic border these elections viewed a whole reserved only few surprises and saw no major change compared to 2010 or 2006, the results in Flanders carried more weight. For the N-VA, the local elections were always going to be tougher because of the special realities and the difficulties associated with implanting a brand new political force in smaller towns whose local government has long been dominated by an established party. However, while the N-VA did not win the tsunami some had predicted – which is not very surprising – it can be said that it has achieved, more or less, what it wanted. Undeniably, Antwerp is the crown and the N-VA won it, making all other results moot. But in the provincial councils, the N-VA was quite successful and even in larger municipalities it had some successes, taking into consideration local factors. It remains to be seen what the implications of having Bart de Wever as mayor will be, both on Belgian politics and the N-VA in particular. Will Bart de Wever focus on governance at the local level or will he retain his strong presence in federal politics? If he does not, can the N-VA continue to grow as ensure its status as Flanders’ new hegemonic party, under a new leader, whoever it might be?

In the next post, I will cover the Czech regional and senatorial (first round) elections. Time permitting, I might include a quick summary of the regional elections in the Azores. I will also try to have something on Montenegro, but Lithuania will likely be covered following the second round of its election at the end of the month.

Belgium 2010

Federal elections for the House of Representatives and 40 Senate seats were held in Belgium on Sunday, June 13. I had attempted to provide a brief analysis and overview of the problems and issues in one of Europe’s most divided countries in a preview post. This snap election had come as a result of the collapse of the Leterme II cabinet this year over a major dispute concerning the electoral constituency of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV). Apart from the far-left, there are no ‘national’ parties in Belgium since the late 70s when the three main political families: socialists, liberals and Christian democrats each split up into a Dutch party and a French-Walloon party. Though most of the mainstream various parties maintain informal links with each other, some links are weak (as the quasi-inexistent links between Flemish CD&V and Walloon cdH) and all parties must negotiate to form a coalition, a coalition which always threatens to explode over linguistic issues and contentious border disputes (in the past, Voeren-Fourons and today BHV). The truth, however, is that the federal government has limited and declining authority in a country with six million institutional levels.

Voting is compulsory in Belgium, though abstention yesterday climbed up 2.3% to reach 15.9%. White or null votes climbed 0.7% to reach 5.8%. Here are the results. Please note that the CD&V and N-VA formed an electoral cartel in 2007 which gave 7 deputies and 1 elected senator to the N-VA. The CD&V’s results in 2010 are compared to that of the 2007 cartel. The Sp.a and Spirit formed an electoral cartel in 2007, but Spirit, renamed SLP, has disappeared. Lastly, some parties, such as the FN, ran lists in only a few electoral constituencies and not in all. No party except the PTB+ (Wallonia) and PvdA+ (Flanders) ran lists north and south.

Chamber of Deputies (national)

N-VA 17.40% (+17.40%) winning 27 seats (+20)
PS 13.70% (+2.84%) winning 26 seats (+6)
CD&V 10.85% (-7.66%) winning 17 seats (-6)
MR 9.28% (-3.24%) winning 18 seats (-5)
Sp.a 9.24% (-1.02%) winning 13 seats (-1)
Open VLD 8.64% (-3.19%) winning 13 seats (-5)
Vlaams Belang 7.76% (-4.23%) winning 12 seats (-5)
cdH 5.52% (-0.53%) winning 9 seats (-1)
Ecolo 4.8% (-0.31%) winning 8 seats (nc)
Groen! 4.38% (+0.40%) winning 5 seats (+1)
Lijst Dedecker 2.31% (-1.72%) winning 1 seat (-4)
PP 1.29% (+1.29%) winning 1 seats (+1)
PvdA+ 0.81% (+0.24%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PTB+ 0.6% (+0.37%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Wallonie d’abord 0.56% (+0.56%) winning 0 seats (nc)
RWF 0.55% (+0.15%) winning 0 seats (nc)
FN 0.51% (-1.45%) winning 0 seats (-1)

Dutch Voters: N-VA 27.8%, CD&V 17.3%, Sp.a 14.6%, Open VLD 13.6%, VB 12.3%, Groen 6.9%, LDD 3.7%, OTH 3.8%
French Voters: PS 37.6%, MR 22.2%, cdH 14.6%, Ecolo 12.3%, PP 3.1%, FN 1.4%, OTH 8.8%

Overall: ‘Anti-Belgian State’ and regionalists (Flemish nationalists, Walloon regionalists and rattachistes) 28.58%, Socialists 22.94%, Liberals 17.92%, Catholics 16.37%, Greens 9.18%, Far-left 1.41%, PP 1.29%, French far-right 0.51%
Overall Seats: Flemish Nationalists 40, Socialists 39, Liberals 31, Catholics 26, Greens 13, PP 1

Senate

Dutch-Flemish College

N-VA 31.69% (+31.69%) winning 9 seats (+8)
CD&V 16.15% (-15.26%) winning 4 seats (-4)
Sp.a 15.31% (-0.92%) winning 4 seats (nc)
Open VLD 13.32% (-6.74%) winning 4 seats (-1)
Vlaams Belang 12.28% (-6.94%) winning 3 seats (-2)
Groen! 6.28% (+0.40%) winning 1 seat (nc)
Lijst Dedecker 3.27% (-2.20%) winning 0 seats (-1)
PvdA+ 1.35% (+0.50%) winning 0 seats (nc)

Secessionist and Nationalist Parties 47.24% (35.96% in 2009)

French-Walloon College

PS 34.72% (+8.89%) winning 7 seats (+3)
MR 24.32% (-7.93%) winning 4 seats (-2)
Ecolo 14.32% (-0.92%) winning 2 seats (nc)
cdH 13.46% (-1.99%) winning 2 seats (nc)
PP 4.01% (+4.01%) winning 1 seats (+1)
Wallonie d’abord 2.52% (+2.52%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PTB+ 2.07% (+1.28%) winning 0 seats (nc)
RWF 1.64% (+0.37%) winning 0 seats (nc)
FN 0.00% (-5.95%) winning 0 seats (-1)

This is a rather marking election in Belgian history: for the first time ever, a party which is opposed to the existence of the Belgian state itself has topped the poll nationwide, and parties opposed to the current Belgian state – that is, either regionalists (Wallonie d’abord) or parties wishing the end of the Belgian state in some form or another, have nearly 30% of the nationwide vote. I don’t think there’s any other country where a party or parties whose ultimate goal is the destruction of said state as a sovereign entity can reach nearly 30% (Quebec doesn’t count as it isn’t a country).

In Flanders, the winner is the N-VA. Their electoral appeal shows that in the past support for Flemish autonomy or independence was not concentrated entirely in the controversial Vlaams Belang, but rather in all parties. In fact, all parties except Groen! saw their vote share fall as it was squeezed by Bart de Wever’s party. The N-VA has shown that despite a rocky start in 2003 (when it won only 1 seat, as Bart de Wever pointed out last night), it can be a party for a vast majority of Flemish nationalists because it both shares Flanders’ traditional conservatism but is not xenophobic or controversial like the VB. That is a very important point. In the Senatorial ballot, the N-VA won 31.7% – a result far superior to most polling and an excellent showing for any party in a very divided political system. Bart de Wever’s personality and popular appeal explains the difference between the showings of the N-VA in the lower and upper house. The N-VA also dominates largely throughout Flanders, proving that Flemish nationalism isn’t concentrated in one or two province. It is ahead in Antwerp, the VB’s old stronghold, as well in Ghent, Ostende, Bruges, Leuven and most of BHV’s Dutch areas. The only major city on the lower house ballot where it is not ahead is Kortrijk (Courtrai). Only what I assume are wealthy areas (for Open VLD) or deeply Catholic areas around Ypres (for the CD&V) didn’t place the N-VA on top in the Senate ballot. The only potential issue for the N-VA now is that its large electoral coalition from 2010 might unravel, especially if it enters government. The mainstream CD&V, Sp.a and VLD all fell to the N-VA, though the socialists resisted best while the CD&V totally unraveled after a poor campaign and the unpopularity of outgoing Prime Minister Yves Leterme. Open VLD, without Verhofstadt’s persona appeal this time, fell quite badly, especially in the Senate where Verhofstadt’s Senate candidacy in 2007 had helped it limit the unraveling in 2007. Vlaams Belang, traditionally the nationalist party, fell quite badly, also falling victim to the N-VA’s spectacular gains. Immigration and security were lesser issues in this campaign and the party couldn’t resist to a party which appeals to their traditional electorate especially well. Groen!’s performance is quite impressive, given that their vote wasn’t squeezed too much by the N-VA, even though overlap between both parties is scarce (although their MEPs sit in the same group, along with Ecolo MEPs). The Lijst Dedecker also fell victim to the N-VA’s success though the remnants of a favourite son vote for Dedecker himself in West Flanders has given them one lone seat in the lower house.

In Wallonia, the winner is the PS and all other parties are losers (except the far-left). The PS had suffered in 2007, especially in its traditional stronghold in Charleroi and Hainaut Province due to bad corruption scandals in Charleroi which were in the headlines in 2006 and 2007. Thanks to a popular government at the regional level as well as a campaign based around the defense of social spending in the wake of the recession, the PS vote was boosted by around the same amount as the MR vote receded, although, compared to pre-election polling, the MR did manage to hold tight. The PS returned to sky-high results in Charleroi, where its up around 20% since 2007, and throughout the mining regions of Hainaut and Liège. In  Liège, the well-known Michel Daerden won an historic result for himself despite being last placed on the party’s list after internal feuds. The MR, as mentioned earlier, did slightly better than expected and held up well in both BHV and the Brussels commuter land in the Walloon Brabant. The MR’s close links to Olivier Mangain’s FDF in the BHV area likely helped it, though the area is sociologically inclined to vote for them. Ecolo, riding high (17-18%) in polling, must be quite disappointed but if they learned anything from 2009, they should have been expecting it. They overpolled by roughly 4% in 2009 and they again overpolled by 4% in 2010. Quite surprisingly, Ecolo’s total vote share fell slightly in both the Chamber and Senate. Once again, people behind the curtain (or in front of the voting machine) likely thought twice about their vote and chose to go with what they know best or think will be most useful in government (in both cases, either the PS or MR). The cdH could also have expected to do quite a bit better given pre-election polling, so they too will be disappointed. Given the overlap between the cdH (which is more of a Christian social-humanist party than a CD&V-type Christiandem outfit) and the PS – both are in government at the regional level – the disappointing result isn’t very surprising. The right-wing populist Popular Party (PP) managed to squeak out a seat in Walloon Brabant where it polled 5.04%, right above the threshold. The FN, running for the Chamber only in Hainaut, Namur and BHV unsurprisingly lost all its seats with only 2.8% in Hainaut and Namur and a paltry 0.4% in BHV. It did not run for Senate. The far-right’s vote, which, in Wallonia was traditionally anti-immigrant (like in most European countries), seems to have shifted to the regionalist side like in Flanders. Wallonie d’abord, a far-right regionalist party similar to Alsace d’abord (they even stole their logo, like the FN had stolen the French FN’s logo), polled a surprising 2.5%. Is this a protest vote or does it perhaps highlight a growing regionalist current south of the border? If it does, Belgium is really screwed. The old rattachistes (RWF) polled 1.6%, increasing its vote share slightly. The far-left PTB+ also did well, reaching 9% in the mining community of Herstal in Liège.

The question on everybody’s mouth is “when will Belgium break up?” Giving a serious answer to such a question is quite difficult and it’s a very hard question. The country of Belgium as we know it will most probably still exist on June 14, 2011. It could still exist by the time the next EU ballot comes around in 2014. But in ten or twenty years? Who knows. The answer partly depends on what government is formed and how this government deals with two pressing issue: BHV and ‘state reform’.

The options for coalitions are quite open and the N-VA isn’t necessarily a necessity for a government, even though excluding them would be a bad idea (bolded for a reason). The PS, the Walloon winners, have not showed much triumphalism in their victory and they say that they’ll open talks with the N-VA. Bart de Wever, who met Albert II earlier today, has also stretched out his hand to the Francophone community as a whole, and said that it would be a mistake for anybody to work independently and aloofly. The N-VA does seem committed to maintaining, for now, stability and peace in Belgium. The coalition options – based on seats in the Chamber (given that indirectly elected seats for the Senate have yet to be chosen) are given below (a majority is 76).

  • ‘Regional coalition combo’ > CD&V/N-VA/Sp.a/PS/cdH/Ecolo: 105
  • PS/N-VA/CD&V/Sp.a/cdH: 92
  • ‘Double olive tree’ > PS/CD&V/Sp.a/cdH/Ecolo/Groen: 78

Under all of these options, the Walloon Socialist Elio di Rupo is favoured to be the next Prime Minister, as it is unlikely the PS or any Walloon party will accept having Bart de Wever on top, as it would be a hard sell for voters in the south. Such a coalition will most likely include the N-VA, given that the parties know that excluding the N-VA would likely result in further gains for the party while including it in government could both ‘tame’ the party and weaken its electoral appeal (as some of its voters would likely flow back to VB and other parties). However, a coalition with the PS and N-VA on top will likely be rather unstable and will have a hard time (as any government) solving the issues of BHV. Even though Vlaams Belang said it welcomed the N-VA as a partner for a progress on Flemish autonomy and independence, the VB will not be in government (obviously) and its radical program – it will propose a bill splitting BHV in two as soon as Parliament reconvenes – will be accepted by the N-VA. A coalition of good-will is likely to emerge, but it will be a coalition both of bickering and “small reforms” which won’t be good enough for Flemish nationalists.

Election Preview: Belgium 2010

Belgium votes in snap elections for the House of Representatives and part of the Senate on June 13. The election was called following the resignation of Prime Minister Yves Leterme over a constitutional-state crisis. His resignation was accepted by the King who called for elections on June 13 despite the Constitutional Court having previously ruled that such elections would be unconstitutional before a major constitutional issue concerning the constituency of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV).

Electoral System and BHV

The House of Representatives has 150 seats elected in eleven multi-member constituencies. Nine of Belgium’s ten provinces are constituencies in their own right, while the constituencies of Leuven and Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde span the province of Flemish Brabant and the Brussels-Capital Region (an enclave in Flemish territory). The seats allocated to each province vary based on population, and seats are allocated by the d’Hondt method with a 5% threshold in each constituency. Parties may combine their lists for the distribution of seats in the constituencies of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, Leuven and Walloon Brabant, where the five percent threshold is not applied.

The Senate has 71 seats, of which 40 will be directly elected by voters on Sunday. A further 21 are appointed by the parliaments of the linguistic communities and ten are co-opted by the elected and community-appointed senators. The three final seats are held by the children of the reigning monarch. Of the 40 seats elected, 25 represent Flemish voters and 15 represent Walloon voters. Voters in bilingual Brussels can choose which linguistic elected Senators they wish to vote for. Seats in both colleges are allocated according to the d’Hondt method among lists polling at least 5% of the valid college vote.

Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) includes the bilingual region of Brussels and the unilingual Flemish canton of Halle-Vilvoorde in the Flemish provinces of Flemish Brabant. However, the French-speaking suburban population living in the officially unilingual canton of Halle-Vilvoorde has increased significantly. In the constituency of BHV, voters may vote for the party of their choice, be it Flemish or French. The Belgian Constitution forbids the existence of cross-linguistic electoral constituencies. Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde contains parts of officially unilingually Flemish Flanders as well as officially bilingual Brussels, making it unconstitutional. The Flemish nationalists and most Flemish parties support eliminating BHV (with the likely solution of making Flemish Brabant one constituency and Brussels another), but French voters in unilingual Flemish Brabant would not be able to vote for the party of their choice as a result. The Walloon solution appears to be annexing the predominatly French municipalities in the canton of Halle-Vilvoorde but the Flemish oppose such a solution because it would create geographic continuity between Wallonia and Brussels.

Political History and the Franco-Flemish conflict

Belgium gained its independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1831. Following the 1815 Congress of Vienna, Belgium, which was prior to the French Revolution a collection of independent states with their local specificities, was annexed by the largely Protestant Netherlands. Despite speaking almost the same language (though Flemish people didn’t like saying that), Flanders was deeply and extremely devoutly Catholic. Independence in 1830-1831 came not as a result of a war of independence which could have forged a national identity, but rather as a deal signed in distant London by which the British government forced the Dutch to accept to the independence of a neutral Belgium (as a British-supported buffer against French and Dutch ambitions), and the British chose a German prince, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to become King.

In 1831, Belgium was still largely Flemish-speaking but Flanders was a poor, rural and very religious area with little major industry. On the other hand, Wallonia was the second most industrialized area in Europe after the UK due to the abundance of coal and mining resources in its populated valleys. As a result, the French-speaking business elite came to dominate politics and business in the country and the Flemish upper-class, largely in Brussels (approximately 50-50 in terms of language even in 1910), became largely French-speaking. Wallonia was the economic heart and Flanders was the rural religious backcountry.

However, the linguistic division was not the deciding factor in the lack of national unity or national pride in Belgium. The example of Switzerland is a perfect counter-example to that. Firstly, the lack of a “unifying” independence war in 1830 contributed to the development of an artificial state, the Francophone hegemony heightened Flemish resistance and nationalism and the divisions of World War II (where Flanders largely collaborated with the Nazis while Wallonia was more resistant) only deepened the deepening gap. The sole unifying factor, Catholicism, declined early on in Wallonia with the rise of socialist thought in the coal mines and later declined, as in the Netherlands, after 1945.

The Socialists replaced the Liberals as the second party in the country after the Catholic Party, which dominated in Flanders (while Wallonia was an early Socialist stronghold). Proportional representation introduced in 1918 saved the Liberals from total extinction and allowed for Catholic-Liberal cabinets against the Socialists. Flemish nationalism pre-war was weak, except for the Flemish National Union (VNV), a quasi-fascist organization, which polled rather well between 1932 and 1939. The Catholic Party became the Social Christian Party/Christian People’s Party (PSC-CVP) after 1946. From 1947 to 1954 the PSC-CVP were part of every government, first in coalition with the Socialists until 1949, and then with the Liberals until 1950, when they won an absolute majority in the Chamber of Representatives and formed several single-party governments. However, in 1954, the Christians lost its Chamber majority, and the Socialists formed a coalition government with the Liberals that ruled the country until 1958, when the Christian Democrats returned to power, ruling in coalition with the Liberals until 1961, and then with the Socialist Party until 1965.

During this same period of time, linguistic and regional strife was growing. In 1950, in the so-called question royale referendum, 58% of voters voted in favour of keeping Leopold II, who had controversially stayed in Brussels during the war. However, while 72% of Flemish voters voted in his favour, he lost by a narrow margin in Wallonia and by a decisive margin in the mining belt in the provinces of Hainaut and Liège. In the winter of 1960-1961, Walloon workers went in a long strike against the financial austerity measures of the CVP-Liberal cabinet of Gaston Eyskens. This movement, which was extremely short-lived in Flanders, led to the growth of federalist or autonomist Walloon movements, most notably the Walloon Popular Movement (MPW). Electorally, the Flemish Volksunie (VU) movement, founded in 1954, made important gains in the 1968 election as did the Brussels-based Democratic Front of Francophones (FDF) and, after 1968, the Walloon Rally (RW), which supported federalism. Both RW and VU were big-tent parties representing the wide range of political opinions in the respective federalist movements, though both RW and VU were largely left-leaning though the VU’s base was largely right-leaning. In the case of the VU, this led to a 1978 split resulting in the creation of the right-wing anti-immigration Vlaams Blok (VB).

Economic patterns changed in the 1960s and 1970s with the decline of coal-mining as a major economic activity in Europe. Wallonia struggled with re-generation and industries shifted north to Flanders while Wallonia struggled with unemployment and became largely dependent on welfare provided, in part, by Flemish taxpayers. The idea of Flanders supporting Walloon unemployed workers has been a major vote-winner for the VB in an increasingly wealthy and economically vibrant Flanders. However, the conservative psyche of Flemings also provide a reason for both the rise of VB and the inability for Belgium to develop a strong national identity. In Wallonia, economic problems have also helped the National Front (FN) – a copy of the French FN – make small gains in elections (in 2007, 1 Senator and 1 deputy, but in 2009, no seats in Wallonia.

Federal reform came first in 1962 with four defined linguistic regions (Dutch, French, German and the bilingual Brussels-Capital region); in 1970 with the creation of three communities (Flemish, French, and German-speaking) and three regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels); and in 1980 with the creation of legislative organs for both the French community and Wallonia while the Dutch community and the region of Flanders were merged with a single legislative organ.

In 1962 a crisis at the Catholic University of Leuven in which Flemish students expelled French students sped up the breakup of the unitary parties; in 1968 the PSC-CVP split between the Walloon PSC and the Flemish CVP, in 1972 the Liberals split between the Walloon PRL-PLP and the Flemish PVV and in 1978 the Socialists split between the Walloon PS and the Flemish SP. The split-up of the major parties and the continued growth of the RW and VU rendered elections and coalitions more difficult. From 1973 to 1981, Belgium had eleven cabinets and four general elections; though the Christian Democrats remained in most coalitions.

In 1981, the Flemish Christian Democrat Wilfried Martens formed a Catholic-Liberal coalition which held power for four years but Martens formed a Catholic-Socialist-VU coalition to secure support for major constitutional reform. Despite this, all major parties (except the PVV) suffered major loses in 1991, an election which saw major gains from the Greens (Ecolo in Wallonia and Agalev in Flanders) and the VB overtook the VU, which continued a slow decline. The following year, a Catholic-Socialist government led by Jean-Luc Dehaene (CVP) was formed and oversaw the passage of major federal reforms in 1993 which effectively made Belgium a very de-centralized federal state while the federal government’s powers declined further (the truth is that the federal government has comparatively little power in Belgium today).

Corruption scandals, the dioxin affair and the Marc Dutroux case led to the 1999 defeat of the Dehaene government. The Flemish Liberals (now known as the VLD), led by the popular young dynamic leader Guy Verhofstadt made history by outpolling the historically dominant CVP in Flanders, while the Flemish Socialists fell to fourth behind the VB. Verhofstadt formed a rainbow coalition with the French and Flemish liberals, socialists and greens (the latter had made strong gains both north and south). The Verhofstadt cabinet ushered in further decentralization on competences such as agriculture, foreign trade, development and cooperation, and local government which were transfered from Belgium to the regions.

The VU, which had won 8 seats in 1999, split up in 2001 between the conservative New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) and the liberal Spirit, which formed in 2003 an electoral cartel with the Socialists, now known as the Socialist Party-different (Sp.a), probably the most cheesy name for a party in world history.

The Liberals and Socialists posted strong gains in the 2003 election, in which the CD&V (the renamed CVP) fell in third behind the Sp.a, which had an excellent election. The PS and Reformist Movement (MR) – the Walloon liberal party (or coalition, in fact it is a coalition of Walloon liberal parties and the FDF) made gains, at the expense of Ecolo (while Agalev lost all seats in Flanders). The VB continued gaining votes in Flanders. The Vlaams Blok was outlawed in 2004 for allegedly breaching anti-racism laws, but its leaders responded by creating the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interests, VB) in 2004.

Flemish voters had had enough of Verhofstadt’s purple cabinet and voted for change by placing Yves Leterme’s CD&V/N-VA cartel far ahead of the VLD and Sp.a, which suffered major loses. The MR outpolled the PS by a narrow margin in Wallonia, while Greens on both sides of the divide made small gains. The VB won a disappointing result after nearly 24% in the 2004 regional elections and a strong showing in its Antwerp stronghold in 2006 local elections. After the election, Yves Leterme sought to form a new coalition government, but divides between Walloon and Flemish parties over devolution were too deep to overcome and gave up by December 2007. To prevent further crisis, the parties did agree to support an interim cabinet headed by Verhofstadt. Finally, in March 2008, Leterme formed a coalition government including French and Flemish Christian democrats, liberals and the PS was formed.

However, following allegations of political interference in the break-up of Fortis Bank, Leterme submitted his resignation in December 2008. King Albert II accepted Leterme’s resignation and appointed Chamber of Representatives Speaker Herman Van Rompuy as head of government. Van Rompuy remained in office until November 2009, when he was chosen president of the European Council and Leterme returned at the helm of a cabinet composed of the same parties. However, the VLD pulled out following the government’s inability to solve the BHV issue.

Parties and Issues

In the 2009 regional elections in Flanders, the major winner was the N-VA – which broke its alliance with the CD&V in 2008 – which won 13.1% of the vote while the CD&V managed only a paltry 22.9%. The N-VA took votes both from the CD&V but also from Vlaams Belang, which fell 8.9% from its 2004 results regionally. The Lijst Dedecker, a “Fortuynist” right-wing splitoff of the VLD led by Jean-Marie Dedecker, which had done surprisingly well in 2007, won 7.6% of the votes. Kris Peeters stayed in power at the helm of a CD&V-Sp.a-NVA coalition. In Wallonia, the PS and MR suffered loses compared to 2004 (and, for the MR, major loses compared to its 2007 results) in favour of Ecolo, which won 18.5% of the votes. Rudy Demotte stayed in power with the support of the PS, Ecolo and the Walloon Christian democrats (cdH).

The N-VA’s leader, Bart de Wever, a controversial figure to say the least, is very popular in Flanders and rising nationalist anger over BHV and other issues have helped the party. The N-VA also recruited a popular political commentator from the VRT, Siegfried Bracke, to join the party’s list. At the same time, the CD&V ousted Yves Leterme in favour of Marianne Thyssen. In Wallonia, Rudy Demotte’s PS remains popular while Ecolo is maintaining its 2009 gains. While the MR is struggling in Wallonia, its close links with the Brussels-based FDF has helped it maintain the upper-hand in BHV. Furthermore, the new Popular Party (PP), a right-wing populist outfit in Wallonia, could win seats and further weaken the MR.

Here are two polls:

La Libre Belgique (June 6)

Flanders

N-VA 26%
Sp.a 16.3%
CD&V 16.2%
VB 15%
Open VLD 13.6%
Groen! 6.8%
LDD 4.3%

Wallonia

PS 30%
MR 20.2%
Ecolo 18.9%
cdH 16.1%
FN 4.1%
PP 4.1%

French Brussels

MR 22.7%
PS 19.4%
Ecolo 13.9%
CDH 12.1%
PP 8.8%
FN 3.3%

Vers l’Avenir (June 10)

Flanders

N-VA 24.4%
CD&V 19.4%
Sp.a 15.5%
VB 13.9%
Open VLD 13.2%
Groen! 7.9%
LDD 3.2%

Wallonia

PS 34.2%
MR 20.4%
cdH 18.4%
Ecolo 17.3%
PP 2.6%

Bart de Wever’s aim is to immediately transform Belgium from a federal state into a confederal state. It is doubtful whether he could form a coalition – with French parties – with that platform. A coalition excluding the N-VA is more likely, and some are suggesting that the PS’s Elio di Rupo could become the first Walloon Prime Minister since 1976 based on the PS’ likely win in Wallonia. He could govern with the Sp.a, but also with the cdH, CD&V and Greens if possible. On the other hand, an “olive tree coalition” between socialists, Christian democrats and greens led by a person such as the popular former Flemish Vice-PM Frank Vandenbroucke could be formed.

The new government will face a tough road in a country which still threatens to break-up almost weekly. Solving the BHV issue is far from an easy task, as is the fabled ‘state reform’ most parties speak of. Secession, break-up remains unlikely in the short-term, but chances for a long-term situation leading to secession of Flanders increase with the formation of another government between the ‘mainstream’ parties (catholics, liberals and socialists/greens).

Europe 2009: Belgium

Belgium had a busy election day on June 7, with regional elections for all regional governments (four in total) and European elections. The regional elections overshadowed the Euros by far, due to their possible long-reaching effects on the federal governance of the very divided country.

Regionals

Instead of using the stupid names adopted by the various parties and because I long for a return to the old 1950s political setup in Belgium, I’ve decided to classify the parties as Catholic (the old PSC-CVP – CDV in Flanders, CDH in Wallonia), Liberals (the old Liberal Party – Open VLD in Flanders, MR in Wallonia), and Socialists (the old PSB-BSP – SP.a in Flanders, PS in Wallonia). Do note, however, that while the Liberals and Socialists have links cross-community, the CDV has no relation to the CDH – the CDV has become more and more of a Flemish autonomist (some will say nationalist, even) party and the CDH has gradually abandoned its Catholic Party roots. Other parties include the far-right nationalist Vlaams Belang, the conservative New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) [in 2004, the N-VA had an electoral cartel with the CDV] and the Fortuynist Lijst Dedecker; all of which are often considered to be Flemish nationalists.

Flanders (includes 6 from Dutch Group in Brussels)

Note that the Catholics and N-VA had an electoral cartel here, as did the Socialists and the Social Liberals (then called Spirit)

Catholics 22.86% (-3.23%) winning 31 seats (+2)
Vlaams Belang 15.28% (-8.86%) winning 21 seats (-11)
Socialists 15.27% (-4.39%) winning 19 seats (-1)
Liberals 14.99% (-4.80%) winning 21 seats (-4)
New Flemish Alliance 13.06% (new) winning 16 seats (+10)
Lijst Dedecker 7.62% (new) winning 8 seats (+8)
Green 6.77% (-0.83%) winning 7 seats (+1)
Union of Francophones 1.15% (+0.08%) winning 1 seat (±0)
Social Liberals 1.09% (new) winning 0 seats (-5)

Secessionist/Nationalist Parties 35.96% (+11.82%)

The marking thing about the Flemish election is the decline of the major parties (CDV, VLD, SP) at the profit of right-wing nationalist parties, notably the N-VA (a very good result for them) and Dedecker (not so good, compared to polls which had him on 16% not so long ago). The current grand coalition (CDV, VLD, SP, and N-VA) led by Kris Peeters (CDV) will likely continue. However, the N-VA could drop out due to the Socialist’s reticences of working with them. Some have warned that the N-VA’s language policy (force everybody in Flanders, Francos included, to speak Dutch) and nationalism could be dangerous for Flanders’ international standing. However, the CDV base is still very attached to their former electoral partners.

Wallonia

Socialist 32.77% (-4.14%) winning 29 seats (-5)
Liberals 23.41% (-0.89%) winning 19 seats (-1)
Ecolo 18.54% (+10.02%) winning 14 seats (+11)
Catholics 16.14% (-1.48%) winning 13 seats (-1)
FN 2.86% (-5.26%) winning 0 seats (-4)

As in Flanders, the major parties took a hit in Wallonia, but to a lesser extent. The Socialists, yet again involved in scandals, held up remarkably well. While Ecolo’s result is not as good as they might have expected based on some polls which put them second, the party is the only winner in these elections and they’re the kingmakers. The Rudy Demotte (PS) coalition between the PS and the CDH has a majority, but the CDH has been very reticent to continuing it. They had productive talks with the liberal MR and they’re opening talks with the Ecolos, who seem to enjoy the courting they’ve recevied very much. A MR-CDH coalition does not have a majority, but a MR-CDH-Ecolo one obviously does. The MR has flat-out refused to form a grand coalition with the PS. A PS-Ecolo coalition also has a majority.

Brussels – French Seats

Liberals 29.82% (-2.68%) winning 24 seats (-1)
Socialist 26.24% (-7.10%) winning 21 seats (-5)
Ecolo 20.22% (+10.53%) winning 16 seats (+9)
Catholics 14.80% (+0.72%) winning 11 seats (+1)
FN 1.91% (-3.51%) winning 0 seats (-4)

The PS-CDH-Ecolo has a majority, but I doubt it will survive. Here, a MR-Ecolo, MR-CDH-Ecolo, or PS-Ecolo coalition all have majorities. I personally would put my money on a MR-led coalition.

Brussels – Dutch Seats

Liberals 23.07% (+3.17%) winning 4 seats (±0)
Vlaams Belang 17.51% (-16.56%) winning 3 seats (-3)
Socialists 19.46% (+1.78%) winning 4 seats (+1)
Catholics 14.85% (-1.92%) winning 3 seats (±0)
Green 11.20% (+1.4%) winning 2 seats (+1)
New Flemish Alliance 4.99% (new) winning 1 seat (+4)
Lijst Dedecker 3.78% (new) winning 0 seats (±0)

A so-called “Jamaican” coalition (using the German party colours, with black for Catholics and yellow for Liberals) has been formed between the VLD, CDV and Groen. The Flemish community in Brussels has two of the five portfolios and one of the three state secretary jobs but this government will govern the city’s Flemish Community Commission (in charge of linguistic affairs, education, healthcare from Flemings in Brussels). The old government was composed of the VLD and Socialists.

German Community:

Catholics 27.02% (-5.77%) winning 7 seats (-1)
Socialists 19.30% (+0.29%) winning 5 seats (
±0)
Liberals 17.52% (-3.47%) winning 4 seats (-1)
Ecolo 11.50% (+3.32%) winning 3 seats (+1)
ProDG (German minority party) 17.49% (+5.8%) winning 4 seats (+1)
Vivant 7.16% (-0.18%) winning 2 seats
(±0)

The government of Belgium’s small German community has been formed. It is the same as before, a Socialist-Liberal-ProDG coalition led by Karl-Heinz Lambertz (Socialist).

Europeans

Dutch-Language Electoral College

Note that the Catholics and N-VA had an electoral cartel here, as did the Socialists and the Social Liberals (then called Spirit)

Catholics 23.26% (-4.89%) winning 3 seats (nc)
Liberals 20.56% (-1.35%) winning 3 seats (-4)
Vlaams Belang 15.88% (-7.28%) winning 2 seats (-1)
Socialists 13.23% (-4.60%) winning 2 seats (-1)
New Flemish Alliance 9.88% (new) winning 1 seat (+1)
Green 7.9% (-0.08%) winning 1 seat (nc)
Lijst Dedecker 7.28% (new) winning 1 seat (+1)

These results, compared to the Flemish regionals, tell the popularity of Guy Verhofstadt, the former Prime Minister of Belgium. Verhofstadt was the VLD’s top candidate and could become a major player in future European politics.

French-Language Electoral College

Liberals 26.05% (-1.53%) winning 2 seats (-1)
Socialist 29.1% (-6.99%) winning 3 seats (-1)
Ecolo 22.88% (+13.03%) winning 2 seats (+1)
Catholics 13.34% (-1.80%) winning 1 seat (nc)
FN 3.57% (-3.88%) winning 0 seats (nc)

There seems to be much more facility in voting for a Green at the Euro level than at the regional level. Maybe it’s because Brussels is included, but there remains a higher Green vote at the Euro level than at the regional level. Maybe it’s because voters know that voting Green at the Euro level has quasi-null impact on the European Parliament, while they’re more skeptical of placing Greenies in power at a level which directly concerns them.

German-Language Electoral College

Catholics 32.25% (-10.23%) winning 1 seat (nc)
Liberals 20.37% (-2.42%)
Ecolo 15.58% (+5.09%)
Socialists 14.63% (-0.31%)

The German seat should use STV.

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