100 days on, no government in sight
18 September 2007
BRUSSELS (AFP) – Belgium on Tuesday marked 100 days since its general election, with the gulf so vast between its Dutch- and French-speaking communities that there is no new government but fears the country could split.
Once just a hypothetical debate, talk of the possibility of federal Belgium falling apart is now on everyone’s lips, with the political parties unable to bridge their differences and form a coalition.
The Dutch-speaking Flemish community — in the richer north and accounting for 60 percent of Belgium’s 10.5 million people — voted on 10 June for parties seeking to devolve more power to the regions, notably to give Flanders control over its economy.
The polls also revealed that the French-speakers, from relatively poor Wallonia in the south, are attached to a strong federal government but that they are not ready to pay any price to save Belgium.
The talks aimed at a forging a coalition government had been led by Yves Leterme, of the Flemish Christian democrat CDV party.
Those talks were suspended two weeks ago, by King Albert II, with the Flemish parties still at loggerheads with the francophones over reforming Belgium’s federal system.
King Albert, playing a mediator’s role for the first time since assuming the throne in 1993, then gave Herman Van Rompuy, the experienced president of the chamber of representatives, an exploratory role, which he has been carrying out largely away from the media’s prying eyes.
This may be a welcome contrast to some of the more hot-blooded expressions thrown about while Leterme was seeking to form a government, but political analyst Jean Faniel complains that now “we don’t really know where we are”.
The vacuum has been amply filled in the media, particularly the foreign media.
“The war of the Belgians,” thundered the headline in the French weekly Nouvel Observateur.
The Economist in London went with “Time to call it a day”.
“If Belgium did not already exist,” it asked, “would anyone nowadays take the trouble to invent it?”
Nevertheless the country — encompassing Flanders, Wallonia and the Brussels-capital region — continues to function under the outgoing government of Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.
While only dealing with current affairs, rather than strategic decisions, the government did, for example, decide to take part in a planned EU military operation in Chad and the Central African Republic.
However the Belgian economy insists that the situation does not drag on interminably. The 2008 budget can only be signed off by a fully-fledged and functioning government.
But not much progress appears to have been made since those June elections. It is difficult to square the political circle with the Flemish population foreseeing a much different future than the 4.5 million francophones.
Without claiming independence for Flanders, as espoused by the far-right Vlaams Belang nationalists, the mainstream Flemish parties want the future government to work towards a profound reform of the balance of powers in Belgium.
They are seeking more freedom to run the Flemish economy and to reinforce its “Dutch character”, notably by scrapping a rule which currently allows 150,000 of the 400,000 francophone voters living in Flanders to vote for candidates in the largely francophone Brussels region.
Such is the political divide that no political party fields candidates nationwide.
However “while portions of the foreign press give the idea of Belgium cracking up, some in Flanders are taking a loyally federalist line,” stressed Faniel, recalling that the Flemish parliament last week rejected a Vlaams Belang call for an independence referendum.
Nevertheless the formation of a new government does not yet appear on the horizon.
“In the political world the talk is of Toussaint (All Saints)” one politico involved in the talks told AFP, referring to the 1 November holiday.
[Copyright AFP 2007]
Subject: Belgian news