Being Belgian while living and/or working in Brussels inside the European microcosm can be sometimes quite challenging. Although you do not have to go through the same hurdles as all your expat friends whose situation of being foreign makes it more difficult when dealing with administrative matters, the challenge resides actually in your newly acquired status of one-stop-shop for every one of their complaints/requests/justifications concerning inefficiencies of your national institutions.
Except their interactions with the local administration or the tax forms they have to complete, few among them are going further than these unpleasant tasks and actually following what is going on in the country they are currently residing in. Since Belgian politics can be particularly unattractive for those who have not been properly introduced to its subtleties, I definitely cannot blame them for that. Luckily I do believe that the upcoming elections are the perfect opportunity to get a glimpse of what is at stake in this country.
Quick recap of the institutional structure of Belgium
Be reinsured, this is not the place for a fully-fledged masterclass on Belgian history and Belgian institutions. Instead those who are not yet familiar with the basics of the Belgian institutional landscape can watch this short introductory video clip, also demonstrating that Belgians are not without self-derision when it comes to presenting themselves to foreigners.
And for those wishing to access more serious and in-depth content, they might want to consult some of the following links concerning a General introduction to the Belgian institutions; an historical outline of the federalisation of Belgium; the latest Belgian state reform; a list of the main Belgian institutions; Belgium and the European Union; and some mini-documentaries interviewing ordinary Belgian citizens.
Simply put, Belgium is a federal State composed of Communities (the Flemish, the French and the German-speaking ones) and Regions (the Flemish, the Walloon and the Brussels ones). The Communities are based on the “language” and have power mainly in domains such as culture, education, and matters where the use of language is of utmost importance to individuals such as health policy and social welfare. The Regions are historically connected with the notion of “territory” and thus have powers over policies such as agriculture, water and environment, economy and employment, energy, transport (excluding railways) and housing.
Political Parties in Belgium
With the federalisation process and despite having once been unitary, the traditional political parties in Belgium are now divided along language lines. Nevertheless they continue to generally keep strong ties with their counterpart in the other communities within their traditional “Belgian political family” and still belong to the same European political parties: the Liberals in the ALDE (NL: OpenVLD / FR: MR / DE: PFF), the Christian-democrats in the EPP (NL: CD&V/ FR: cdH / DE: CSP), the Socialists in the PES (NL: sp.a / FR: PS / DE: SP) and the European Greens (NL: Groen / FR: ECOLO / DE: ECOLO).
Only small parties (those without representation in any of the parliaments) are still unitary parties such as the radical left parties (e.g. Vivant, PSL–LSP, LCR–SAP), the Communists (PTB–PVDA), the Belgian Unionists (BUB), the Pirate Party (PP) or the party in favour of Brussels (Pro-Bruxsel).
Finally one should also mention the parties that operate only in one community or the other such as the French-speaking Federalists (FDF), the Flemish radical rightists LDD (represented at the European level as part of the ECR) or the PP in the French-speaking Community. Similarly, we can find the separatist parties such as the Flemish Nationalists (N-VA), which are part of the EFA at the European level and are fighting for an independent Flanders, the RWF hoping to unite Wallonia to France or the regionalist German-speaking party (proDG). Last but not least, there are also far right extremist parties, both in Wallonia (WD) and in Flanders (VB), the latter having one MEP in the Non-Inscrits.
With their strong convictions, the real fun begins when these parties have to form coalitions together and on different levels, which can end-up in some kind of surrealist mikado. So just imagine if all the coalitions were to be formed at the same time… which is exactly what will happen after this weekend.
The 2014 Mammoth elections
One might wonder why it is necessary to take the time to cover national politics amidst the European elections campaign. It is indeed because on the 25 May the voters in Belgium will not only cast their vote for the European Parliament, but also for the Chamber of Representatives at the federal level, and equally for their respective Regional/Community Parliament. This is why these elections are called “Mammoth elections” or “the mother of all elections” since all levels of political representation except the local one will see their members being re-elected (or not), which will heavily shape the constellations in Belgian politics for the next five years and will probably even transform the destiny of the country as a whole.
A second argument for considering national politics is that the 21 seats in the European Parliament granted to Belgians will be divided among 3 constituencies in order to guarantee the representation of each Community within the Belgian quota. After Croatia joined the Union, Belgium lost a seat in the European Parliament and after some negotiations at the national level, it has been decided that the Dutch-speaking electoral college will thus elect 12 MEPs instead of 13 while the French-speaking one will appoint 8 MEPs and the German-speaking electoral college will choose a single MEP. Consequently, the electoral campaign for those elections has been taking place at the regional/community level and not at the national one since both the candidates and parties were competing for the votes of their fellow citizens in their own electoral college (except in Brussels where people can choose to vote either for a Dutch-speaking or a French-speaking list).
Now that the broad institutional stage and the main political actors have been set, maybe some last practical considerations would be useful before opening the Pandora’s box of the political campaigns. First of all, be aware the vote is mandatory in Belgium. Second, the system is the one of proportional representation with single party list within which the voter can select individual candidates. And finally, seats are allocated on the basis of the D’Hondt method, named after the Belgian mathematician Victor D’Hondt who conceptualised it in 1878.
Federal level: Elections to the Chamber of Representatives
Almost everybody remembers what happened in Belgium in the follow-up to the last federal elections: a shameful world record of 541 days without a federal government. However, fewer people actually know that this record originated from a terrible deadlock in the political negotiations concerning mainly the new state reform, the refinancing of the Brussels Region and a typically Belgian issue of a judiciary and electoral constituency.
This deadlock emerged as the result of the elections which saw on the one hand victory of the N-VA, the rightist Flemish nationalists in the Dutch-speaking electoral college who’s main ambition was an independent Flanders, and on the other hand of the PS, the socialists from the French-speaking electoral college, who promised to fight for Belgium’s unity. Ultimately, whilst having received the mandate from the King to form a government, the N-VA did not succeed in building a coalition around its proposals and instead a new government composed of the Liberals, Christian-Democrats and Socialists in both the Dutch and French-speaking groups finally emerged under the lead of Elio Di Rupo, president of the PS who got sworn in as the new Prime Minister of Belgium.
Since then Belgium has also experienced the 2012 local elections. On the one hand, in Wallonia no major power shift occurred, the PS remaining the party with the higher degree of local presence despite experiencing a slight decline and in Brussels the dominating parties got their scores reduced without spectacular change in the balance of power. On the other hand, in Flanders, the N-VA successfully managed to become the second largest party and even secured symbolic victories in key cities such as Antwerp where its leader, Bart De Wever, became the Mayor.
Today, the question on everybody’s lips is to know whether the 2014 elections results will enable the N-VA to build on what they achieved last time and finally block the negotiations for the formation of a federal government or whether a coalition excluding this separatist party would still be possible. Consequently the political campaign in the 2014 federal elections has been dominated by the clash between the PS and N-VA. The spotlight has been put on those two parties, notably through a ridiculous controversy around two pandas lent to a Belgian zoo by China, and eventually culminated with a TV debate between their respective presidents.
Naturally, the other political parties were not pleased to remain in the shadows. In order to get back some media attention, the traditional main opponent of each of these two parties, the French-speaking liberal MR and the Dutch-speaking Christian-democrat CD&V communicated together around the idea of a new axis between them, leaving aside their respective traditional partner within their own political families. Ultimately, the general public debate focused again on the different parties’ fiscal proposals until suddenly a new unexpected file came on the table: Brussels Airport’s flight paths, an issue that will influence the federal elections but more essentially the elections for the Brussels Parliament.
Regional/Community level: Elections to the Brussels/Walloon/Flemish/German-speaking Parliament
In Brussels, the latest polls showed that the issue of Brussels Airport’s flight paths might end up being very costly for the cdH results in the Brussels Parliament due to the fact that the federal minister in charge of the implementation of the change to flight paths belonged to this party. On contrary, the FDF and the Green ECOLO used this dossier for positioning themselves against the plan and in defence of the local Brussels citizens. However, these developments do not seem to affect the position of the two first parties in the race for the Brussels leadership, respectively the MR, followed by the PS.
According to the same polling, the situation in Wallonia is repeated where the two most popular parties are the MR and PS. The only difference is that unlike in Brussels, the PS leads over the MR. On the one hand, due to the tensions inside the last coalition with cdH and ECOLO, the PS would prefer to be in a position where it could govern with only one partner instead of two. On the other hand, the MR wishes to finally put an end to the uninterrupted presence of the PS into the Walloon executive since 1988 by ousting them into opposition. A final footnote would also be the re-emergence of the Communist party (PTB) that are predicted to get 8.5% of the votes and may even become the 4th largest Walloon party, pushing the Greens to the fifth place.
As for Flanders, and as showed by the polls, the N-VA’s share of votes would account for around 30% while the three next parties follow with approximately 16% for the Christian-Democrats CD&V, 15% for the liberal OpenVLD and 14% for the socialist sp.a respectively. The hottest TV debate took place between the N-VA Bart De Wever and the CD&V Chris Peeters, both of them hoping to obtain the leadership of the next Flemish government for their party.
Finally, in the German-speaking Community, the largest party, the Christian-Democrat CSP, which has been in the opposition since 1999, is dreaming of getting back in power by overthrowing the socialist party (SP), which would consistently rob them of the position of Ministry-Presidency of the Community by forming coalitions with new partners. However, this year’s race for becoming German-speaking Minister-President appears to be more open than usual with the liberal PFF and the regionalist proDG declaring as well their ambitions for obtaining the position.
European level: Elections to the European Parliament
According to pollwatch, the top 3 parties with the highest scores at the EU elections would be the N-VA with 15.25% of the votes, the PS with 13.75% and the CD&V with 11.9% respectively. This would mean an increase of two seats for the N-VA in comparison with the last elections while the PS would maintain its 3 seats and the CD&V lose one seat.
Overall a broad pro-European consensus does exist among the Belgian people where eurosceptics are so marginal that even a political party advocating for a federal Europe has emerged in Belgium: Stand Up for the United States of Europe.
In comparison with the intense regional and national electoral contexts, the European campaign has looked much more consensual, which may explain why citizens and media attention is more difficult to catch for the European elections’ candidates in Belgium. Despite the difficulties in getting exposure, Belgian political parties have decided to appoint more experienced politicians as candidates. Even better, according to a recent study, Belgium occupies the two top scores in a ranking of MEP candidates in terms of experience. The EPP Steven Vanackere, several times minister in different cabinets, is in second place while the former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, standing as the ALDE candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission is at the top of the list. According to a poll by the KULeuven University, thanks to the status of “Mister Europe” Guy Verhofstadt has acquired, his candidacy could even create the so-called “Verhofstadt-effect” that could boost the results of his party at the European level, the Flemish Liberals Open VLD, and steal the lead from the N-VA.
The constitution of the party lists for the European elections have also brought their controversies after several parties have decided not to let some experienced MEPs stand again for their own re-election. A number of examples include the cdH (EPP) Anne Delvaux who despite having been granted an MEP award this year has still been replaced on the list by trade-unionist Claude Rollin, the PS (PES) Véronique De Keyser who has been replaced after two terms by former Senator Marie Arena, or the ECOLO (European Greens) Isabelle Durant who has decided not to run after her party appointed fellow MEP Philippe Lambert as top candidate for the list. More tragically, the CD&V has had to deplore the loss of the former Belgian Prime Minister and MEP Jean-Luc Dehaene who passed away on 15 May 2014.
On the content of the public debate itself, the themes followed a traditional right/left pattern with most of the discussions covering issues such as the TTIP negotiations, the democratic deficit of the EU or the tools for unleashing growth and stimulate employment. No surprise there. This situation left some space available for speculations on matters of less interest such as the European Political Group affiliations or the name of the Belgian Commissioner in the next European Commission. On the former, the hot topic has been the question of which of the EU political groups the N-VA should sit in after the elections since the Belgian Greens are keen on expelling them from the group of the European Greens and the European Free Alliance. At the same time the ECR may be interested in integrating them into their group. As far as the position of the Belgian Commissioner is concerned, rumours have been spreading that CD&V (EPP) MEP Marianne Theyssen would be considered for the position of Commissioner for Competition, that Open VLD (ALDE) Karel De Gucht is hoping to clinch a second term as Trade Commissioner or even that the PS (PES) Elio Di Rupo would be quitting on his ambition as Prime Minister to become Commissioner.
In conclusion, one might summarise the situation by saying that the regional/Community levels are the most open contests, with multiple coalition shifts possible within each Region/Community. At the national level it is to be expected that the negotiation for the formation of a new federal government will be as difficult and maybe as long as the last one due to stark contradictions between the two main parties, the N-VA and the PS. And finally, the European results are consistent with the results at the national level, meaning that the emergence of a proper European campaign based on its own European dynamic and detached from the Belgian politics is yet to emerge in this country.