Belgium: one country, two democracies

by Laure‑Anne Rigaux

On 26 May, federal, regional and European elections took place in Belgium. These elections revealed more than ever how the country is made up of two different democracies. With a nationalist-right vote in Flanders and a leftist vote in Wallonia, the country is sinking into a long and complex federal coalition formation.

North of the linguistic border, in Flanders, the rise of the far-right party Flemish Interest is most striking in both regional and federal elections. The victory of Flemish Interest impacted the results of the Flemish coalition partners New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), the liberals (Open Vld) and the Christian democrats (CD&V), who all lost seats. Nonetheless, N-VA remains the largest party on both levels. For the Flemish greens, the elections resulted in disappointment, since they could not meet the high expectations of inciting a ‘green wave’. The first and second position of N-VA and Flemish Interest reveal the strong Flemish nationalist sentiment in Flanders.

Across the linguistic border, the federal and regional election results tell a very different story. In contrast to the nationalist-right vote in Flanders, the Walloons voted for non-traditional parties. They put the Green party (Ecolo) and the PTB, a far-left political party, on the forefront of the political scene. This hit the traditional parties: the liberals (MR), the socialist (PS and the Christian democrat (CdH) parties. Nonetheless, the socialist party (PS) remains the largest in Wallonia. The regional election results are similar in Brussels, where the greens are the winners in both linguistic groups and the socialist PS remains the largest party overall. In the east of the country, the elections for the parliament of the German-speaking community did not cause large power shifts. The Green party (Ecolo) and the social-liberal party Vivant won a seat each, at the expense of the liberals (MR-PFF) and Christian democrats (CSP).

The results for the European elections reflect the same trends as the regional and federal elections. This is largely explained by the fact that most Belgian electors do not make a distinction between the three policy levels and their competence distribution, due to the simultaneous occurrence of their elections. Flemish Interest wins two seats at the expense of New Flemish Alliance and the Flemish liberals. The Walloon greens and the extreme-left PTB win a seat each, at the expense of the liberals and the socialists. The new allocations of Belgian seats within the European Parliament make the Belgian representation partially drift away from traditional parties.  After these elections, it is no longer crystal clear if Belgium should be considered as a pro-integration member state.


Towards a new world record? 

At the regional level, coalition formation appears to be relatively simple. In Flanders, a remake of the current government of New-Flemish Alliance, liberals and christen-democrats is possible and probable. In Wallonia, former prime minister Di Rupo (socialists) will initiate the talks and is able to choose from a comfortable range of options. However, regional coalition formations could get hampered if parties decide to use them as a bargaining chip in the federal formation discussions.

It is on the federal level, where the gap between Flanders and Wallonia needs to be bridged, that things look extremely complicated. The starting position of the coalition formation is particularly difficult, as no obvious coalitions are available. A remake of the so-called Swedish government, with the Flemish and Walloon liberals, the Flemish christen-democrats and New-Flemish Alliance, is far from possible. Likewise, the option of a classic tripartite made up of liberals, socialists and christen-democrats does not reach a majority. One feasible option would be a coalition between N-VA, the liberals and the socialists. The obstacle here is the mutual demonization between New Flemish Alliance and the Walloon socialists. Another option would be a ‘master-coalition’ against N-VA, where the liberals, the socialists, the christen-democrats and the greens join forces. However, the idea of a government made up of eight different parties is unattractive.

Difficult federal coalition formations, as a result of opposite voting behaviour in Flanders and Wallonia, has become a recurring obstacle in Belgium. In 2010, this even resulted in breaking the world record of the longest government formations. It took the country 541 days to form a government on the federal level. Now the election results are more contradictory and diverse than ever, this will be even more challenging than before. The chance of a long coalition formation, resulting in a policymaking standstill, is very likely.

Belgium is facing a period of political uncertainty, awaiting a new federal government. Nevertheless, the coalition talks should not be underestimated to liaise with newly elected MPs inside the federal parliament. The formation period can entail opportunities in reshaping the Belgian policy landscape and should not be considered as a political deadlock. The colleagues at RPP Group are here to help you navigate through this challenging landscape, if you want to make most of this opportunity.