Last May 26, Belgians went to the polls to elect a new federal parliament, five community and regional parliaments, and 21 members of the European Parliament. As I write this more than four months later, four subnational governments have been formed, and negotiations for the creation of the fifth – a new government for the Flemish Community and Region – are well advanced. At the federal level, however, formal negotiations have not even started.
Given the outcome of the election, it is not surprising that government formation is proving to be so difficult, with voters north and south of the Flemish/Francophone linguistic border voting very differently. The outcome was even more fragmented than that of the previous election in 2014, when it took 140 days of negotiations to form a coalition government of Flemish nationalists (N-VA), Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V), Flemish liberals (Open VLD) and Francophone liberals (MR). The coalition, headed by Charles Michel of MR, was referred to as the “Swedish coalition” because the colours of the Flemish nationalists (yellow) and liberals (blue) in combination with the cross of the Christian Democrats are reminiscent of the Swedish flag.
On the Flemish side, the main partner in this coalition government was the N-VA (New Flemish Alliance), which favours free markets and Flemish independence. Founded in 2001, the N-VA ran in an alliance with the Christian Democrats in the 2004 regional and 2007 federal elections. That alliance shattered in 2008, and the Flemish nationalists have since risen to become – by far – the dominant party in the Flemish region, gaining 28.2 per cent of the Flemish vote in the 2010 federal election and 32.5 per cent in 2014. N-VA leader Bart De Wever has consistently ranked as the most popular politician. The party has also been a member of the Flemish regional government since 2009, and has led it since 2014. Moreover, despite its support for Flemish independence, the party entered the federal government for the first time following the 2014 elections, taking several important portfolios including home affairs and finance. Bart De Wever, however, did not take up a portfolio as a minister. The Flemish Christian Democrats and Flemish liberals also joined the coalition, ensuring that the government had the support of a majority of Flemish voters.
On the Francophone side, only one party entered the coalition: the liberal Mouvement Réformateur (MR), which ran second to the socialist party (PS). MR managed to strike a deal with the Flemish parties based on a program of right-wing economic policies. Underlying the agreement was the shared desire of the N-VA and the MR to keep the PS out. Since the constitution stipulates that each language group should have half the portfolios in the federal government, its status as the only Francophone party in the coalition gave half the portfolios to the MR. This same status, however, was considered a risky strategy for the MR – so much so that, since the government only had the support of about one in four Francophone voters, the coalition was also referred to as a “kamikaze coalition.”
During his term as Prime Minister, Charles Michel had to deal with a number of different conflicts among the coalition partners: over economic reform, the budget and external affairs. The Flemish nationalists regularly found themselves disagreeing with the other parties in the coalition, but it was not until December 2018 that the N-VA decided to quit the government – over the United Nations immigration pact. Even though the Belgian government had previously promised the UN that it would support the pact, the N-VA insisted that this position be reconsidered. The Europe-wide immigration crisis, and the rise of the extreme right in Flemish polls in particular, apparently pushed it to take a firmer stand on immigration. The other government parties, however, refused to give in to the N-VA’s demands, and Charles Michel officially announced that Belgium would support the immigration pact at a United Nations summit in Marrakesh. Without the support of the N-VA, the government had become a minority cabinet, but it continued to govern until the May 2019 elections.
Different Issues, Different Parties
Both federal and regional elections in Belgium take place within districts that are – with the exception of the Brussels region – unilingual. The parties are split along linguistic lines as well, and de facto form two separate party systems. As a result, the campaign dynamics in the two main regions, Flanders and Wallonia, are quite different: debates in each region are confined to the leaders of the parties in one language group. As is evident from table 1, these differences seem to reflect voters’ priorities as well. The data from a preelection survey conducted by the scientific consortium RepResent, show that immigration is the top priority of voters in the Flemish region. However, it only comes fifth for voters in Wallonia, for whom employment is the priority, followed by the environment.
The focus on migration in the Flemish region is hardly surprising. The government had lost its majority over the issue of immigration, and the N-VA, fearing losing voters to the extreme right, was eager to position itself as a party that would limit immigration. It continued to voice concern over the United Nations immigration pact in language sometimes reminiscent of the literature of the extreme right.
If the issues were different on the two sides of the linguistic border, so were the election results. In Flanders, the results were marked by a further growth of right-wing parties; on the Francophone side, the winners were on the left.
Flanders: Increased Polarization
The real drama is in the Flemish region, where the political landscape became considerably more fragmented. Although the Flemish nationalist N-VA managed to hold onto its position as the largest party, it lost about seven percentage points compared to the 2014 election (see figure 1). The main winner was the extreme-right Vlaams Belang (VB, Flemish Interest), formed after its predecessor, the once-powerful Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc), was found guilty of violating Belgium’s anti-racism law in 2004. In the May 2019 election Vlaams Belang came in second and outperformed predictions based on preelection polls. This result is all the more surprising given that the party had been in a continuous decline since the 2004 regional elections. In 2014 VB won less than 6 per cent of the vote, leading some to assume that it would soon fall below the 5 per cent electoral threshold. Instead, in 2019 the party more than tripled its vote share to almost 20 per cent.
With more than one in four voters in Flanders voting for the N-VA, and almost 20 per cent supporting Vlaams Belang, close to 45 per cent of Flemish voters supported parties that favour the independence of Flanders, giving a boost to the independence movement which interprets the result as a signal of Flemish citizens’ desire for an independent Flemish state.
In contrast to the gains on the extreme right, the three parties that have traditionally dominated the Flemish electoral space – the Christian Democrats (CD&V), liberals (Open VLD) and socialists (SP.A) – all lost votes. The gradual decline of these three parties thus continued, none managing to win the support of more than 15 per cent of the Flemish electorate. With 14.2 per cent of the vote, the Christian Democrats are at a historically low level of support, and the same holds for the Flemish socialists, who received less than 11 per cent of the vote. The Flemish liberals, for their part, obtained 13.6 per cent, their lowest score since the 1961 election. The Christian Democrats and liberals likely paid a price for their participation in the federal government. Even in opposition, the socialists proved unable to halt their decline from the time in the early 2000s – what now seems a very distant past – when they received the support of nearly a quarter of the Flemish electorate.
The extreme-left Partij van de Arbeid/Parti du Travail de Belgique (PVDA/PTB), in contrast, surpassed expectations, gaining almost 6 per cent of the vote. The slight increase in electoral support for the Flemish greens (Groen), however, was below expectations – particularly in a context in which young people worldwide are taking to the streets to protest the lack of government intervention to fight climate change. Overall, the 2019 election led to increased fragmentation and polarization of the Flemish party system, with seven parties represented in the federal parliament, and advances by the extreme right (+13.2 percentage points) and the extreme left (+4.2 percentage points).
Wallonia: An Outlier in Europe
Despite the extreme-left gains in the Flemish region, the main winner of the election, Vlaams Belang, was found on the right. This contrasts sharply with the election results south of the language border in Wallonia, where two left-wing parties, the Francophone greens (Ecolo) and the extreme-left PVDA/PTB, were the main winners.
Ecolo almost doubled its electoral support compared to 2014. Unlike its Flemish sister party, it seems to have benefited from the mobilization and student strikes to demand action on climate change. The PVDA/PTB increased its vote share among Francophone voters just as it did in Flanders, but in contrast to Flanders, it is no longer a “small” party in the south. By increasing its vote share from 5.2 per cent to 13.8 per cent, the PVDA/PTB is now the fourth largest party in the Francophone political space. Clearly, the left has won the election in the south, and the continued absence of a viable extreme-right party renders Wallonia – along with Portugal, Ireland and Malta – an outlier within Europe.1
The losers of the 2019 election on the Francophone side were the three “traditional” parties. The Francophone Christian Democrats (cdH) fell to fifth place among the Francophone parties, winning the support of only about 10 per cent of the voters. The socialists (PS) and the liberals (MR) are still first and second respectively in the Francophone party space, though each lost about 5 percentage points compared to 2014. Following the 2019 elections, the Francophone party system, much like the Flemish one, is more fragmented than ever. Combining the Flemish and Francophone parties, the effective number of parties for the 2019 federal election was at a record level (figure 3).
Progress in the Regions and Communities
By voting so differently, Flemish and Francophone voters have made formation of a federal government an arduous task. Many of the same considerations apply at the regional level, where the results closely resembled those for the different language groups at the federal level. The increased fragmentation and decline of the three traditional party families has made government formation more difficult than ever.
The Belgian federal state has a dual structure (see map). Communities represent the three different language groups – Flemish/Dutch-speaking in Flanders and Brussels, French-speaking in Wallonia and Brussels, and the small German-speaking Community (77.000 people). Regions – Flanders, Wallonia (including the territories of the German-speaking Community), and the Brussels Region – represent territories. The communities have competence over community-focused topics, such as education and culture, while the regions have competence over the economy and related matters such as housing and transport. In theory, each community and each region should have its own parliament and its own government. However, the Flemish Community and the Flemish Region are governed by a single parliament and government, so that in addition to the federal government, five subnational governments need to be formed after each election. Of Belgium’s 11.4 million people, 6.5 million live in the Flemish Region, 3.6 million live in the Walloon Region and 1.2 million live in the Brussels Region.
Following the May 26 elections, the German-speaking Community was the first to form a new government. Only a few days after the election, it was announced that the Christian Democrats, socialists and liberals would continue to work together under the direction of Minister President Oliver Paasch. The next government to be formed was that of the Brussels Region. It took until halfway through July 2019 to arrive at a coalition agreement between, on the Flemish side, the greens, liberals and socialists and, on the Francophone side, the socialists, greens and the federalist party Défi. Forming a governing coalition took substantially more time in Wallonia. On September 13 – 110 days after the election – Francophone socialists, liberals and greens formed a coalition led by the socialist Elio Di Rupo, who served as Belgian Prime Minister between 2011 and 2014. The same parties also agreed to form the government of the French-speaking Community.
The situation is even more complex in the Flemish Region. The main winner of the election on the Flemish side, the extreme-right Vlaams Belang, is de facto excluded from governing through a cordon sanitaire. This agreement by all other parties to exclude a party considered a threat to democracy came under some pressure immediately following the election. The party was invited to meetings with Bart De Wever – who was, as the leader of the largest party on the Flemish side, in charge of the formation of the Flemish government. It has become clear now, however, that the cordon sanitaire will persist and that the extreme right will not be part of the next Flemish government.
The most likely scenario now is a Flemish government composed of the Flemish nationalists (N-VA), Christian Democrats (CD&V) and liberals (Open VLD). The negotiations between these three Flemish parties that were part of the outgoing federal “Swedish coalition” government are well advanced, and even though all three lost votes compared to the 2014 elections, they still have a majority of seats in in the Flemish parliament.
The Nearly Impossible Task: Forming a New Federal Government
The formation of a federal government seems a nearly impossible task at this point. The extreme fragmentation of the party system, the exclusion of the extreme right and the quasi-exclusion of the extreme left considerably limit the options. In addition, the N-VA insists that the federal government have not only a majority of seats in parliament but also a majority of seats among the Flemish parties. Right on election night, Bart de Wever warned that if the other Flemish parties were to enter a federal government that could not count on the support of a majority of Flemish voters, it would be “a major problem.”
What, then, are the options? A continuation of the Swedish coalition at the federal level is impossible. Following the 2019 election, the parties that formed the governing coalition in 2014 now fall 13 seats short of a majority in parliament. Any option that does not include the N-VA would mean that the government does not have a majority on the Flemish side – which would be very problematic after the Flemish nationalists explicitly warned against this. The only workable options, therefore, require that Flemish nationalists and Francophone socialists look each other in the face and agree to govern together. After years of political fighting between the two main parties in each language group, with each demonizing the other, none of the parties is very enthusiastic about the idea. So far, neither party is ready to sit down at the negotiating table. In the meantime, Prime Minister Charles Michel is set to leave Belgian politics to become the new President of the European Council.
That the N-VA and the PS will have to start talking at some point seems crystal clear, as new elections are unlikely to serve as a way out of the current impasse. In the face of recent polls in Flanders suggesting that, as support for the extreme right continues to grow, Vlaams Belang might even become the largest party, it is unlikely that the other parties will be willing to call for new elections. Negotiating, as always, seems the only way to cut the Gordian knot of Belgian politics. But it will not be the first time. Hopefully, the parties will not break the record for time to form a government set following the 2010 federal election – 541 days.
1 Paul Hockenos, Is There a Secret Recipe for Preventing Far-Right Populism? Foreign Policy, May 9, 2019