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).

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Posted on June 12, 2010, in Belgium, Brussels-Capital Region, Election Preview, Flanders, Wallonia. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I think the N-VA is in with a good chance of entering the government personally. Their leader Bart Wever, is making lots of promising noises, by saying that he’ll accept Di Rupo as PM (as leader of the biggest bloc), that he realises that 70% of Flemish people didn’t vote for the N-VA etc. Wever’s moderate noises, and his resounding victory suggest to me that he’ll have to be brought into a coalition, if only to prevent an even bigger victory further down the line. Di Rupo, for his part, has pretty much signalled he is willing to talk about devolving more powers. So a Socialist-NVA-Christian Democrat coalition at least has to be considered a good shout IMO.

    The biggest potential trouble comes from the cdH in my opinion. The 2003 coalition talks, lengthy as they were, were primarily dominated by disputes between the cdH and CD&V about economics and new powers for the regions. The cdH was eventually only placated by the introduction of the PS into the coalition, increasing the number of centralising, economically leftist voices in the coalition. I suspect the cdH to once again prove to be the surprising voice of Walloon nationalism and defender of the federal state, likely a tactical decision to try and outflank the more compromising MR and PS.

  2. On the important and interesting question(could there be a contest?) of “cheesiest name for a party in world history”” mention must be made of the norwegian Centre party, formerly the Farmers party, who in between, for a few unhappy months in the 1950ies, were named “Norsk Folkestyreparti(Demokratene)”/ “Norwegian Popular Rule Party(Democrats)”.

  1. Pingback: Belgium 2010 « World Elections

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