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BURSON-MARSTELLER INSIGHT

The Belgian federal elections A tale of two halves: separatists win in Flanders, socialists in Wallonia 15 June 2010

The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) has scored what is being called a ‘tsunami victory’ in Belgium’s federal elections, taking 27 of the 150 seats in the country’s lower house of parliament, the Chamber. The N-VA, led by 39-year old Bart De Wever, took votes from all the traditional Flemish parties in an election held twelve months early following the collapse of the previous government and an impasse in the controversial negotiations on constitutional reform. In Wallonia, the French-speaking south of the country, the Socialist Party (PS) won the poll, taking 26 seats. With its Flemish counterpart, the SP.A, taking 13 seats, the Socialists become the largest political family in the country. With Mr De Wever indicating that he does not wish to become prime minister, it seems likely at this stage that the leader of the PS, Elio di Rupo, could be called on to take up that role, and to become the first Francophone PM since 1979. Background Reforming the state and the ‘BHV problem’ The federal elections were brought forward when the government of Yves Leterme, the Flemish Christian democrat prime minister, fell in April. The immediate cause of the fall of the government was the withdrawal of the Flemish liberals (Open-VLD) from the government. However, this withdrawal came against the backdrop of the complex and increasingly fractious debate over reform of the federal state, notably the ‘BHV problem’. BHV – or Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde – is an electoral and judicial constituency that covers the bilingual region of Brussels and its suburbs (which are in the region of Flanders). As a result of this arrangement, French speakers in Flanders can vote for Frenchspeaking parties – whereas Flemish speakers in Wallonia cannot vote for Flemish parties. The constituency has already been ruled unconstitutional by Belgium’s constitutional court, but political agreement on resolving the issue could not be found, despite attempts by a former prime minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, to engineer a compromise.

The results in Flanders The N-VA breaks through The election campaign in Flanders was dominated by reform of the state and the necessary cutbacks to have stable national financial and social security. With state reform so high on the agenda – the N-VA, a rightwing party led by Bart De Wever (above right) that argued for a confederal Belgium as a step towards independence for Flanders, scored 28% of the vote. It took votes from all the traditional parties, including the Christian Democrat CD&V, with whom the N-VA formed an

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alliance at the last federal elections in 2007. However, the CD&V and N-VA soon parted company, and the Christian Democrats were punished at the polls for failing to ensure a stable government and agreement with the French speaking parties. The CD&V score fell by 12.5 percentage points to an historic low of 17.60%. The Open VLD lost five points, ending with score of 14% of the vote, and the SP.A also lost votes but overtook the Liberals, scoring 15%. The Green party, Groen!, was up slightly, to 7.1%, while the extreme right Vlaams Belang lost a third of its vote, falling to 12.60%. However, separatist parties won nearly half the vote in Flanders, sending a clear signal of discontent in the north of the country. The results in Wallonia and Brussels The Socialists take a decisive victory The election in Wallonia saw the PS win decisively, with 37% of the vote, defeating the Liberal party, MR, which fell back to 22% (a drop of nine points) after having defeated the Socialists in 2007. The CDH - the centrist humanist party whose leader, Joëlle Milquet, played an important role in blocking further state reform, fell back slightly, with 14% of the vote. The Green party, Ecolo, remained stable on 12% of the vote. Meanwhile in Brussels, the PS went up three points and the MR lost seven. However, the Liberals remain the biggest party in the capital – although this was due in no small part to its alliance with the FDF, a party which stridently defends the interests of


French-speakers in Brussels and its periphery, and which has also been a major opponent to reform of the state and in particular of the BHV problem.

What happens next? Uncertainty in Belgium – and for the EU presidency It is very unclear what the new government will look like at this stage. As always in Belgium, it will be a coalition, with the aim of securing majority support for the government in terms of the country and the two main linguistic groups. The King, Albert II, will play an important role in the days after the election, probably appointing an advisor (informateur) to guide the monarch on likely coalitions. The fact that the largest party (N-VA) is republican will make for interesting discussions. In any case, it is very unlikely that Bart De Wever will become prime minister – and it is thought more likely that Elio di Rupo (left), the flamboyant leader of the PS, will be asked to form a government. Ironically, the victory of a Flemish separatist party could see Belgium have its first Francophone prime minister in 30 years. All will depend on the negotiations. In terms of coalition partners, there is little clarity at this stage: one Francophone newspaper listed around a dozen possibilities following the election. One possibility is that the PS teams up with its Flemish partner, SP.A to form a government with N-VA. To have majority, Ecolo and Groen! could join the government. The Liberals and Christian Democrats have not yet decided on what they will do: join a government or opt for opposition due to bad results. One possibility raised by the CDH was to form a coalition without the N-VA. However, the overall consensus is that there needs to be a solution for Belgium, and that in these economic unstable times the country cannot take a long time to form a government. The country's debt-to-GDP ratio is Europe's third highest, behind Greece and Italy, and is set to rise beyond 100% this year or next. While the constitutional issues took the headlines, economic problems are real, and stabilisation measures will be needed to ensure that the country does not head towards similar crises as in some other eurozone countries. EU presidency One major consideration in the formation of a government will be Belgium’s upcoming presidency of the Council of the European Union, which begins on 1 July. While the priorities of the Presidency have been agreed, Belgium will be keen to have a new government for its term in the chair – not only in order to give direction to discussions, but also to portray an image of stability in the country at a time when the eyes of Europe and the world will be on Belgium.

The results in detail Party

Chamber

+/(2007)

Senate

+/(2007)

N-VA

27

n/a

9

n/a

CD&V (Christian Democrats)

17

n/a

4

n/a

SP.A (Socialists)

13

-1

4

-

Open-VLD (Liberals)

13

-5

4

-1

Vlaams Belang

12

-5

3

-2

Groen! (Green)

5

+1

1

-

Lijst Dedecker (right-wing)

1

-4

0

-1

PS (Socialists)

26

+6

7

+3

MR (Liberals)

18

-5

4

-2

CDH (centrists-humanists)

9

-1

2

-

Ecolo

8

-

1

-

Popular Party (right-wing)

1

+1

0

-

Flemish parties

Francophone parties

* N-VA and CD&V formed an electoral alliance in 2007

Towards a split? The headline of the election is the victory of the N-VA, and interesting times are ahead with two completely opposed majority opinions on the two sides of the linguistic border: in Flanders, a strong vote for a right-wing, Flanders nationalist approach; and in Wallonia, large-scale support for a left wing, Belgian approach. Nevertheless, a formal split in the country is not imminent – a range of issues, not least the presence of the European institutions and the situation of the mainly Francophone ‘island’ of Brussels within Flanders, make that a long and complicated process. However, this election result has been something of a wake-up call to the Francophone parties: it is not only Flemish parties, but voters too, who have become frustrated at the pace of change and the intransigence of some of the political leaders in the south of the country. This point was acknowledged by Mr di Rupo in his victory speech. Mr De Wever also made efforts to reach out across the linguistic divide, calling on Francophones to help make a country that works, or risk sliding backwards. Towards the end of the campaign, the N-VA made attempts to emphasise its proEuropean approach (it sees a confederal Belgium, in which regions give powers such as defence to the federal state, as a necessary step until such a time when these powers can be managed by a fully federal European Union). The results seem set to concentrate minds on the issue of reforming the state and finding a workable solution – while at the same time tackling the economic problems besetting the country.

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The Belgian federal elections