Belgium Faces Difficult Coalition Process

Brussels, the seat of the European Union.

(CN) – In Belgium, the seat of the European Parliament, national election results are predicted to split along language lines, likely leading to a difficult coalition process.

Sunday’s election has been referred to as Super Sunday, as Belgians went to the polls for regional, national and European elections.

Belgium has six national parliaments. One national, three for each of its language communities (French, Flemish and German) and two regional parliaments for Walloon and Brussels. The Flemish region used to have a parliament but it merged with the Flemish community parliament in 1980.

In Flanders, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) took home 24.8% of the vote, down from the 32.2% it gained in 2014, but still enough to be the largest party in the region. The even further- right populist party Vlaams Belang increased their hold by 13% to take 18.6% of the total share.

The French-speaking Wallon gave 24.8% of the vote to the Socialist Party, which was a decrease from the 31.4% they took home five years ago. The socialists were followed closely by the liberal MR party with 21.4%. The biggest winner in the region was Ecolo, the green party, which tripled its hold to 14.5%.

All these moves followed similar trends around Europe. All 28 EU countries went to the polls last week to vote in European Parliament elections and many countries saw a rise in support for right-wing and green parties.

“Six months ago, I would have said the two top issues were the environment and migration,” said Régis Dandoy, a political scientist at the Center for Local Politics at Ghent University. According to Dandoy, in the past few months traditional Belgian parties like the conservative CD&V, the liberal MR and the socialist parties had refocused the election on socioeconomic issues.

It’s unclear what role the N-VA and Vlaams Belang could play in the new federal government. Centrist parties have long engaged in a policy of cordon sanitaire and refused to involve Vlaams Belang in coalitions. N-VA, which was part of the previous government, has indicated it is willing to hold talks with the even further-right party, but the two do not have enough votes to form a majority.

The Belgians have been without a government since just before Christmas 2018, when the resignation of  Prime Minister Charles Michel was accepted by King Philippe. Michel’s center-right coalition between the N-VA, the Christian Democratic and Flemish (CD&V), the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Open Vld) and the MR fell after the nationalist N-VA quit the government. The N-VA disagreed with Michel committing the country to the United Nations Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

Belgium holds the record for the longest period of time without a government: 589 days. That’s how long it took Elio Di Rupo to form a coalition with three parties in 2010 and 2011. Despite having only a caretaker government during the financial crisis, the Belgium economy outperformed the rest of Europe.

Most voting took place without incident at polling stations around the country. French national Claire Guillaume, who lives in Antwerp, said: “There were no lines and the whole process only took 15 minutes.” As an EU but non-Belgian citizen, she could only vote in municipal and European elections.

Voting in Belgium is compulsory and it frequently has the highest voter turnout in the EU. Preliminary results show that 89% of the voting population cast a ballot in Sunday’s election compared to a 51% average across the EU as a whole. By law, elections always take place on a Sunday in the country.

“Voting is part of the culture,” said Dandoy. Though non-voters can be fined, that hasn’t happened since 2003.

Some Belgians didn’t find the process so simple. “It is chaos everywhere,” said Joost Van Belleghem, from Flemish People in the World. He was referring to problems that Belgians living in other EU nations had in voting at Belgian consulate or embassy polling stations.

Many countries struggled with organizing voting for citizens living abroad. Riot police in the Netherlands were called in to break up angry demonstrations by Romanian citizens who were in line to vote when the embassy locked the doors at 9 p.m. British voters around Europe had to scramble to straighten out registration after the UK decided to remain in the EU through the election, despite Brexit having been planned for March 29.

Police in Belgium’s capital of Brussels arrested around 250 Yellow Vest protesters during the day, after a protest which started at the Brussels-North Railway station attempted to move to the European Parliament building. Protesters opposed what they called the “European dictatorship,” though, according to a police spokesperson, the group did not have permits for a demonstration.

King Philippe is expected to hold exploratory talks with political party leaders in the coming weeks to start the coalition process. According to the Belgian constitution, the monarchy will appoint a politician tasked with forming the coalition.

(Courthouse News reporter Molly Quell is based in The Hague, Netherlands)

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