The last time Belgium organized general elections, the political parties needed 541 days to conclude a governmental agreement. This year, there will not only be one but three elections on the same day: the composition of European, federal and regional parliaments are on the move. Is the shameful record of 2011 threatened?
Despite its fragmentation, all the components of the Belgian political system are based on proportionality. The governments, both at the federal and regional level, are based upon an alliance among several political parties, winners of the elections. This system is not shared by every country, indeed, in France for example, the government can be composed only by one political party.
This is true for all elections taking place on May 25th but one: the European Parliament. Indeed, the Strasbourg-Brussels based institution is still far away from having a European government as there is no majority pro or con such a government. However, the recent will of the European political parties for each of them to present their own candidate to the Presidency of the Commission, and therefore linking the two institutions more than by a formal vote, is a notable counter-example even if it remains unclear whether the European Council, which keeps the upper hand on the process, will follow the Parliament’s wish. The participation rate in the European elections is high in Belgium: over 90% of the population go to the polls as the participation is mandatory. However, as stated by Euractiv: the EU elections attract « high turnout, little interest ». Even if the country hosts most of the European institutions, the interest in European matters remains low. The European sphere seems to be disconnected from the national one: if many links are made between federal and regional elections, it is not the case with the European Parliament. The general feeling in the society that Europe is a technocratic system, which is not really ‘sexy’, is a reasonable explanation. For political actors, bringing Europe into the general debate about the political landscape would be salutary, but not fruitful in terms of communication outcomes. Parrhesia is not really popular. If it is the case across the EU, except for the eurosceptics parties, the phenomenon seems even greater in Belgium as the main issue or matter of argument that can be found in the Belgian public sphere – or, more accurately, the common elements that can be found both in the Dutch-speaking and the French-speaking public spheres – are mainly socio-economic issues which, wrongfully, are still considered by many in the hands of the national governments.
Belgian Federal Parliament
It is worth noting that in the federal and regional elections, contrary to what happened in 2011, the future shape of the country is not the main topic of the campaign. Of course, everybody keeps the issue in mind but the opposition between the Walloon vision of Belgium based upon unity and the Flemish vision endorsing more federalism is known and is not high on the campaign agenda. Still, will Belgium have a government before the end of May? It remains uncertain for two reasons.
Firstly, the opposition is now on the economic playground. Flanders, traditionally voting for right-wing parties, has deepened this tendency even more. The most recent polls show NV-A, a party in favour of the split of Belgium, which defends very liberal and rigour-based policies, taking the lead. In the south of Belgium the situation is exactly opposite: the socialist party, which has ruled Wallonia for more than twenty years, has better scores in the polls than during the last elections, when it was already celebrated as a success. Even if this situation does not lead to any constitutional problem for setting up a government in Flanders and Wallonia, it can become trickier at the federal level, where these two opposite economic visions will have to work together. In 2011, the problem was overcome, or more precisely circumvented, by simply ignoring NV-A, and concluding an alliance with other Flemish parties, despite the fact that it was the first party in Flanders. Using this solution for the second time would be difficult as NV-A will, more than probably, be rewarded with an even greater score in the polls and the other parties will not have the majority in the Parliament. Let’s try to avoid a minority government.
Secondly, the four classic political parties – left, catholic, right and greens – are used to working together. However, the liberals have not been part of the government in Wallonia for the last 20 years and they want to come back. Therefore, one means of leverage would be to require symmetrical coalitions: in 2011, they were in the federal government but not in the regions and the same for the green party – they are in power in Wallonia but not part of the federal coalition. Asking for symmetrical parties will therefore be a strong claim, mostly by liberals, to achieve their political short-sighted goal. However, this situation cannot be sustained for a long period of time: the country may be able to continue its regular business without a federal government, but it cannot do that without any government at all. This claim will be present during the first days of negotiations, but will soon disappear.
The last element worth mentioning is the progress of the populist parties. These small parties, around 3% in the last elections, are more and more successful, taking up to 6% of vote intentions. Despite all the criticisms brought against these ‘too-easy-answers parties’, their popularity is doubtless. It has the impact on the political system of taking votes mainly from second rank parties, needed to constitute a coalition, but not strong enough to be based upon a stable electoral basis. Therefore, it brings the system to a more fragile equilibrium: the powerful gain even more power and the less powerful begin to lose the little influence they had.
In conclusion, the equilibrium of the system is under pressure, but the outcome seems to be less dramatic than what happened in 2011 for the federal elections. For the European elections, it will be business as usual and for the regional elections, depending on the willingness of certain parties to make symmetric coalitions, we are safe from any collapse on May 26th.
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Graduate from the Faculty of Law and Political Science, University of Liège (MA, 2012) and the Department of European Political and Administrative Studies at the College of Europe in Bruges (MA 2013). Intern at the European Movement Belgium (2010) and the Group of Research and Information on Peace and Security (Brussels, 2013). He is since associated researcher at GRIP and member of the political cabinet of a Belgian Minister, dealing with European and International Affairs.