Belgium: The ongoing efforts to form a government

This is a guest planting by Tom Round.

…. The current crisis dates from June 10, when the Flemish Christian Democrats, who demand greater autonomy for Flanders, came in first with one-fifth of the seats in Parliament. Yves Leterme, the party leader, would have become prime minister if he had been able to put together a coalition government. But he was rejected by French speakers because of his contempt for them – an oddity since his own father is a French speaker. He further alienated them, and even some moderate Flemish leaders, on Belgium’s national holiday, July 21, when he appeared unable – or unwilling – to sing Belgium’s national anthem.

Belgium’s mild-mannered, 73-year-old king, Albert II, has struggled to mediate, even though under the Constitution he has no power other than to appoint ministers and rubber-stamp laws passed by Parliament. He has welcomed a parade of politicians and elder statesmen to the Belvedere palace in Brussels, successively appointing four political leaders to resolve the crisis. All have failed.

On one level, there is normalcy and calm here. The country is governed largely by a patchwork of regional bureaucracies, so trains run on time, mail is delivered, garbage is collected, the police keep order.

Officials from the former government – including former Prime Minister Guy Verhhofstadt, who is ethnically Flemish – report for work every day and continue to collect salaries. The former government is allowed to pay bills, carry out previously decided policies and make urgent decisions on peace and security.

Earlier this month, for example, the governing Council of Ministers approved the deployment of 80 to 100 peacekeeping troops to Chad and a six-month extension for 400 Belgian peacekeepers stationed in Lebanon under United Nations mandates. But a new government will be needed to approve a budget for next year…

– Elaine Sciolino, “Calls for a Breakup Grow Ever Louder in Belgium,” New York Times (21 September 2007).

Sciolino goes on to mention that:

The turning point is widely believed to have been last December when RTBF, a French-language public television channel, broadcast a hoax on the breakup of Belgium. The two-hour live television report showed images of cheering, flag-waving Flemish nationalists and crowds of French-speaking Walloons preparing to leave, while also reporting that the king had fled the country. Panicked viewers called the station, and the prime minister’s office condemned the program as irresponsible and tasteless. But for the first time, in the public imagination, the possibility of a breakup seemed real.

Is this the most famous example of a television program changing politics since Indian TV’s dramatising the “Ramayana” helped (it is said) rekindle voter support for the BJP?

As noted, the above is by frequent propagator, Tom Round. He correctly noted that there is (or was) no Belgium (or, more generally, Benelux) thread at F&V. While there had been previous threads on the Netherlands, I do believe this entry by Tom is the first on Belgium. How I failed to note the Belgian election earlier this year is quite a mystery.–MSS

0 thoughts on “Belgium: The ongoing efforts to form a government

  1. As Douglas Rae noted in 1971, a pure “absolute majority” decision rule ironically gives more power to the smallest parties – they can block, indefinitely, any decision being reached at all.

    (Caveat: “lowest-candidate-out” exhaustive-runoff balloting isn’t pure “absolute majority”, since voters may abstain once their favourite[s] are eliminated, and the final showdown may be, say, 47% to 45% of the total).

    My back-of-the-envelope model for a parliamentary executive (ie, if you don’t want a moderately strong elected president who gets to pick the Cabinet if the Lower House can’t form an absolute majority either way) would be:

    1. PM’s term expires 1 July each year, and also when Lower House first meets after each general election.

    2. Whenever PM’s term expires, Lower House elects a new PM – absolute majority required on the first (say) four ballots, then a simple plurality suffices on the fifth.

    3. Lower House may remove the PM in mid-term, but only by constructive no confidence vote, ie electing a new PM by absolute majority.

    With a system like this, the French speaking parties would have to either merder or else get off the chambrepot rather than sulk indefinitely.


  2. One little remark from Belgium to Tom Rounds planting: Leterme couldn’t sing the national anthem IN FRENCH. He started singing La Marseillaise, the french anthem instead…

    Root of the problem is not the power of small parties in PR-systems being too big (see the Israel planting if that’s a true statement), but the fact that Belgium is a federation with basically only two ‘partners’: the dutch-speaking Flemish people (almost 60%) and french-speaking people (Walloons and most of the inhabitants of the capital Brussels).

    In such cases, resembling a marriage, it is difficult to think that one ‘partner’ (the bigger of the two) could force a majority-decision on the other, but also that the other (the smaller of the two) could block indefinitely such a majority. When the differences of opinion nest on the cleavage between both ‘partners’, decisions on those subjects, even trivial ones, can only be taken by a compromise between both ‘partners’.

    The question blocking the government formation process is… the faan electoral district ‘Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde’.


  3. The best explanation I’ve seen so far of the Belgian situation is this post by at Crooked Timber. It doesn’t make me much more optimistic about the future of Belgium. Perhaps the biggest factor weighing against separation is the difficulty of negotiating what to do with Brussels.

    I’m struck by the way the writer describes the “divided worlds” of the Flemish and the French. I wonder how large a part was played in this by the split of political parties along linguistic lines. If one party was trying to gain votes among both groups–like the Liberals and Conservatives do in Canada–they would have at least some interest in maintaining a shared world-view. Does anybody know why the parties split after World War II?

    Tom, thanks very much for the post. Your “parliamentary plurality” solution looks like it would solve the immediate problem of government formation; but I think it just delays the inevitable. At some point, a government has to actually do something important, like pass a budget, that requires a majority of votes.


  4. > “… it just delays the inevitable. At some point, a government has to actually do something important, like pass a budget, that requires a majority of votes.”

    Well, in my purified republic, the annual budget would be merged with the annual re-election of the PM. Whichever PM was elected by plurality (if there was no abs maj after repeated attempts) would have her draft budget deemed approved.

    Alternatively, “the annual budget proposed by the Council of Ministers is deemed passed within [60] days with such amendments as are made by absolute majorities of both Houses. Neither House may reject the budget.” (Opposite of the US Cong’s “up or down”, no-amendments procedure. Technically, I suppose, one or other House could “amend” the budget without “blocking” it by reducing all expenditure items to zero.)

    Of course, these executive-favouring fast-track provisions should only operate once per year. For any additional expenditure, the usual majorities should be needed.

    My conclusion from US experience is that, if the carve-up of the budget is not a proxy for electing or removing the Executive (as in UK, Australia and – dramatised in 2004-05 – Canada), the parties are more likely to compromise with their opponents rather than forego pork. (Is there a better term to use around leftish Jewish bloggers?!)


  5. Ingrid Robeyns, who posted the essay at Crooked Timber, gives her take on the absence of federationwide parties in the comment thread, at #71:

    So long as there were no regional elections, the political parties were much closer to their sisterparty at the other side of the language border; and from what’s been reported in the press, the Flemish and Francophone politicians of those parties met regularly, and knew eachother well (though it is likely that all these conversations took place in French). It is only after the regional and community elections were installed that the parties became much stronger profiled as either Flemish or Francophone, and that whole generations of politicians had little interaction with ‘the other side’. Nowadays I can’t see why any party would seriously consider to form an all-Belgium party, since such parties would receive few votes – in part because the political and social events of the last decades turned a large percentage of Belgians into Flemings or Bruxellois first (less so for those in the Walloon region).


  6. … NB also the Australian Whitlam Dismissal crisis of November 1975. Once the Liberal/ National Opposition got what it had demanded – the Labor Cabinet sacked as PM by the Governor-General, Fraser appointed as caretaker PM, and an early election called – the Liberal/ National Senators stopped blocking Whitlam’s budget, and then passed exactly the same budget so as to vote Supply to their own leader as caretaker PM. In other words, they didn’t object to its content or spending priorities, they objected to the fact that the PM to whom Supply was being voted was Labor’s Whitlam.

    Having said that, even neo-Madisonians have to concede there is a certain point after which institutions and incentives just won’t overcome passions, historical grudges, and sheer obstinacy.

    I note that the world’s two oldest federations, Switzerland and the USA, don’t try to operate a system where the executive has to retain the confidence of a majority of the legislature to remain in office. OTOH, India and Canada manage it.

    I wonder whether Switzerland has the paradoxical advantage over Belgium, of being religiously divided. Thus German-speaking Swiss may mutter rude things about the French speakers, but this is tempered by the fact that German-speaking Catholics are on a different plane united with French-speaking Catholics against German-speaking Protestants. It would be ironic indeed if a society with two cleavage lines, religion and language/ ethnicity (provided they are perpendicular, ie, divide the society into four roughly equal blocks) were more stable than one that was divided by only one cleavage, whether language (Belgium, Canada) or religion (Netherlands, Northern Ireland).


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