Belgian political crisis lost in translation
The Belgian government is on the brink of dissolution for the fifth time in three years. A bilingual electoral district, an old culprit, is to blame.
Members of parliament of different parties gathered in the corridors of Belgium’s federal parliament on Thursday. They had just been informed about prime minister Yves Leterme’s resignation. As they were discussing the new episode in Belgium’s ongoing political crisis, they suddenly heard loud singing bursting out of the main hall. Flemish nationalist members of parliament were singing the Flemish anthem.
In Belgium, where a delicate linguistic balance of power has been maintained between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloon populations, this kind of behaviour causes a stir. While Flemish spectators failed to be impressed by the nationalists' display, French-speaking journalists were shocked. The incident led the French-speaking public television network's evening newscast, which called it "unprecedented in the history of our nation".
French and Dutch-speaking Belgians live in parallel universes. In recent weeks, Alexander De Croo, the young leader of the Flemish liberals, had repeatedly stated that he wanted a solution to the problems in the controversial Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde electoral district by Thursday, or his party would resign from the coalition government. French-speaking politicians were nonetheless flabbergasted when his party pulled the plug when the deadline wasn’t made. Only then did they realise De Croo had meant what he said.
Politicians who know each other can weigh each other's words. But in Belgium, Flemish and French-speaking politicians seem to have lost touch.
The crisis centres on Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde, or ’BHV’ as it is known in Belgium, the only bilingual electoral district in the country. It consists of the Belgian capital Brussels and the 35 Flemish municipalities surrounding it. During elections, French-speaking inhabitants of these Flemish municipalities can vote for prominent Brussels members of French-speaking parties. The Flemish fear a creeping 'Frenchification' of their municipalities and want to put a stop to this practice.
As De Croo resigned, prime minster Yves Leterme tendered his resignation to the Belgian king for the fifth time since he won the elections of 2007 on the promise of "good governance". He failed twice as the crown-appointed formateur charged with the creation of a new government, and failed thrice as prime minister. King Albert II rejected his resignation once and he still has the latest notice under consideration.
How bad is it?
The current crisis has followed the same pattern as those that came before it. At first, everyone is quick to acknowledge the gravity of the situation, saying a solution seems farther away than ever. Politicians are quick to argue that the final blow has been dealt to mutual trust. But within a day all parties find themselves back at the negotiating table, because there are no real alternative.
Each crisis, however, leaves Belgian politicians more resolute in their beliefs, making every new compromise harder to etch out between the Flemish and French-speaking Belgians. French-speaking and Flemish politicians in this multiparty democracy fight amongst themselves as they do with each other. The competition between the different parties on each side make the political landscape even more complex and leave less room for compromise.
The bilingual political dynamics are key to understanding the crisis. On the French-speaking side, one party in particular, the Federalist French-speaking Democrats (FDF), does well in the BHV elections because it stands up for the interests of the local French-speaking population. Electorally, the FDF stands to gain more if the crisis continues than if an ugly compromise is found.
Defending narrow interests
The FDF is a small party, but it is a part of the larger, liberal Reform Movement (MR). The MR’s leader, Didier Reynders, needs the FDF's support to maintain his position, so he is taking a hard line with the Flemish.
French-speaking politicians generally fear being accused of squandering French interests if they are not firm on the issue of BHV. The Belgian electoral system is largely to blame: because national elections are organised locally. In the Walloon south of the country, people can only vote for French-speaking parties; in the Flemish north, only Dutch-speaking parties run. BHV is the one district where French-speakers can vote for their own, even if they live in a Flemish municipality.
The Flemish are responding to the crisis in a similar manner. On Thursday, the Flemish liberals suggested putting to a vote a Flemish proposal regarding the BHV electoral district in the country's federal parliament next week, where the Flemish hold a majority.
In an attempt to trump the liberals, the Flemish Christian democrats then demanded the matter be put to a vote the same day. Their proposal never made it though. This Monday, parliament will discuss the agenda for Thursday.
Constant media exposure is making it even more difficult for politicians to reach a compromise. This problem may not be unique to Belgium, but politicians and the press are even more closely intertwined here than elsewhere. The crisis has made for fascinating television, as one reporter fought her way past colleagues on-air to get the political drama's main protagonists in front of her camera.
Belgium is perhaps the only country in the world were newspaper circulations are still on the rise. At a Brussels newsstand on Friday morning, a salesman pointed out that his papers were quickly selling out. "But this is still pretty bad," he lamented.