13 May 2008
BRUSSELS – Belgium’s francophone parties on Friday delayed a fresh political crisis by blocking a decision to cut back French-speakers’ voting rights in Brussels suburbs, a deeply contentious issue.
The 62 francophone deputies of the parliament of the Brussels region unanimously adopted a blocking "conflict of interests" motion hours after Flemish parties voted to scrap an arrangement whereby French-speakers in Dutch-speaking suburbs of Brussels can vote in the bilingual capital itself.
Belgian politics have long been marked by deep divisions between Dutch-speakers, making up 60 percent of the country’s population, and French-speakers.
Flanders, Belgium’s Dutch-speaking northern half, is seeking greater regional powers to reflect its prosperous status. It also resents subsidising the less affluent French-speaking Wallonia region to the south.
The row over voting rights for French speakers in Flemish suburbs of Brussels has crystallised the whole linguistic divide which last year led some observers to fear the country could effectively split in two.
Only the Brussels capital region – largely populated by French-speakers, and home to the European Union and NATO – is officially bilingual.
The differences between Belgium’s two main communities prevented the formation of a government for nine months following a general election last June, and could yet cause that fragile coalition government to fail.
The conflict of interests motion must now transfer to the federal parliament, thus offering time for negotiations between the various parties, but with no hint of a compromise deal in sight.
The immediate effect is to freeze for 120 days the vote to scrap the special voting rules for francophones in mainly Dutch-speaking suburbs in a country where no party fields election candidates nationwide.
Eager to avoid a crisis, Prime Minister Yves Leterme had in recent weeks been racing against the clock to negotiate a compromise on the issue, which is threatening his government barely two months after taking office.
If fresh elections are required then this can only benefit the more radical parties in the present political climate, according to analysts.
Leterme will be hoping that the latest blocking action will give him the time to carry out his first principal objective, to agree a reform of Belgium’s institutions by a deadline of July 15, to offer more autonomy to the feuding regions — the goal sought by the Flemish parties.
"Confidence is difficult to re-establish," said finance minister and francophone party leader Didier Reynders.
To show they are not prepared to let their future be dictated by Dutch-speakers, the francophones indicated they were not willing to discuss Flemish political demands until the question of voting rights in Brussels suburbs are settled through negotiation.
[AFP / Expatica]