By Sophie des Beauvais
On October 7, four months after Belgium’s general elections were held, a coalition agreement was formed in Brussels. After the 2010 elections, which yielded 18 months without a coalition agreement, the country managed to avoid a second political crisis. Belgium’s newest government composition, however, is quite unique—highlighting the lingering tensions within the Belgian society.
Belgium is a constitutional federal monarchy made of three communities: the Flemish (60 percent of the total population), the French (40 percent), and the German (around 1 percent). Belgium also has three regions (Wallonia, Flanders, and Brussels. Given these divisions, one might expect a government that reflects these three groups. However, the new government is cromprised of three Flemish parties, including the nationalists of the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), and only one French-speaking party, the center-right Mouvement Reformateur (MR) led by Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel.
Although the N-VA won the elections in Flanders with 33 percent of the votes, the party only represents 20 percent of the total vote in Belgium. The N-VA did not wish to lead the government but wanted to remove the French Socialists currently in office. Since the N-VA wasn’t seeking the highest office, it was easier to reach a consensus and name French Liberal Charles Michel as Prime Minister. However, with the exception of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is led by French Liberal Didier Reynders, “all the sovereign functions of the State are in the hands of the Flemish parties,” notes the newspaper Le Soir.
According to Pascal Delwit, professor of Political Science at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, “it will indisputably be a challenge, [as] a major part of the French population doesn’t recognize itself in this government.” But if the government is to be shaken, it will come from within. Even if the MR will face opposition in the French territory, only a substantial Flemish protest can threaten the stability of the government.
Meanwhile, the N-VA, defined by its communitarianism beliefs, seeks to bring an end to the modern state of Belgium and to create in its place an independent Flemish state, agreed to set aside this objective for the next five years. “For a few decades, communitarianism has been in the front the Belgian political news and disturbed both the political landscape and the program of the different factions,” MR deputy Françoise Schepmans notes. “But the sixth reform of the state satisfied these claims and today, there is a government agreement that will allow us to implement the economic and social reform the country needs, in a calmer atmosphere.”
Though Michel’s party is the only French party in the government, his government has the support of the Parliament, which approved his general political declaration, where he explained his government’s program and plans for the next five years.
Indeed, the Prime Minister’s difficulties lay elsewhere. According to Tanguy de Wilde d’Estmael, professor of political science at the Université Catholique de Louvain, the government is center-right, and the pressure of trade unions, usually significant in Belgium, will threaten some aspects of the planned public finance reform. The MR will be permanently exposed to the critics of the opposition, especially the Socialist Party, which isn’t part of the government for the first time in 27 years.
The political decision-making process in Belgium aims at satisfying, in a relatively proportional manner, the different political and cultural components of its society. “This system guarantees the representation of smaller political factions, a vital element in a parliamentary democracy, which also enriches debates and deliberation processes,” MR deputy Françoise Schepmans says. For Delwit, the system is reflective of Belgium itself, characterized by cross-cutting cleavages (linguistics and political), and is not very different from what can be seen in neighboring countries like the Netherlands and Luxembourg. As a consequence, all parties have, in addition to a political role, a linguistic role to fulfill, and the establishment of a new government must set up a compromise on those two main axes.
Until the mid-seventies, Belgium was a country known for its institutional stability. Since then, however, it’s undergone four major institutional reforms in 20 years. The establishment of the Federal State in 1993 fostered this unstable phenomenon, and today, Belgium is characterized by instability and the perpetual search for a new equilibrium. Belgian federalism is confrontational; Belgium is a country where federalism is, above all else, a process of detachment.
However, for Schepmans, “Belgium is not an unstable country, [as] each system has its advantages and disadvantages. To me, the proportional system is the most adapted to the features of my country.”
Would a constitutional reform help stabilize the country? According to d’Estmael and Delwit, this instability reflects Belgian society’s profound cleavages. Additionally, Belgium already had numerous institutional reforms, and the proportional system may actually be the most appropriate to represent all the components of this complex society. Moreover, the introduction of elections by majority vote might destabilize the country even more, with the advent of the N-VA as the dominant party in Flanders and the Socialist Party in the French territory. These political configurations would be divisive, particularly on matters of society and economics—bringing the existing disparities to the forefront of the political agenda.
Indeed, the current electoral system, which relies on proportional voting, doesn’t foster government stability; it requires backroom negotiations to achieve a new parliament. However, if and when an agreement is reached, a certain stability and consensus is established—as is the case in the most recent elections. And for a country as complex and diverse as Belgium, a little stability goes a long way.
Sophie des Beauvais is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.