And The Loser Is… Belgium

(another mighty fine post by dr. Arf)

Vlaams Belang in action (source)

Wednesday, June 9th. D- Day rememberance is well behind everyone and it kind of went unchecked over here in Belgium, because a different kind of war is being waged here at the moment : the national election. Now, I shouldn’t say ‘national’, because while there is still such a thing as a Belgian nation, it isn’t unified as you all know, and this while the national motto is ‘Unity makes power’. That power, though, has been seriously weakened over the past three years. It seems like only yesterday that one Yves Leterme won the 2007 federal election (that’s the proper name for this election) with 800.000 votes and the bold statement that ‘five minutes of political courage’ would suffice to split the electorate of Brussel – Halle – Vilvoorde, which entails the Belgo- European capital and its surrounding suburbs on Flemish regional ground but is inhabited by a majority of Francophones who are represented by francophone politicians who would like nothing more than to take another bite out of the Flemish region purely for electoral gain. Old news for those who have read my guest blogs here, I’m sure.

Just like it is old news that after three years of nothing much except saving the banks with tax payer’s money – no doubt a great feat in these times of economic crisis – this federal government was terminated when Open VLD president Alexander De Croo felt that three years of talk was cheap enough and pulled the plug. He was branded everything from a fool to a traitor by the other majority parties and even some politicians in his own ranks when that happened.

Curiously, though, we’re now in the home stretch of the election campaign and while there have been a few references to De Croo’s so called irresponsibility (which, of course, made him responsible for these elections), it’s hardly come up at all. Why? Well, there is a party called N-VA that has a party president called Bart De Wever, who makes no secret of the party’s wish to secede Flanders from Wallonia and thus to terminate the Belgian federal state, which, according to De Wever, is highly inefficient and brings this land to a standstill. However, De Wever repeatedly stated that while the final goal is secession, he sees this as an evolutionary process, rather than a revolutionary process. And the man and his party are booking great successes in every poll leading up to the elections, which are taking place when you read this (provided you read it on Sunday, of course). Which, of course makes all the traditional parties go apeshit, not in the least those south of the language border and makes them say the silliest things or try the most underhanded tactics to try and thwart N-VA’s success in Flanders.

On Flemish side, everything from ridiculing De Wever and N-VA to labour unions and former politicians ‘advising’ not to vote for the party and the man has been tried. It even seemed like a new ‘cordon’ sanitaire’, like the one placed around extreme right nationalist party Vlaams Belang, was being put in place. Undoubtedly, some politicians in other parties were wishing – although not out loud – that this would happen. Here’s why it didn’t : firstly, De Wever has successfully managed to come across as a competent politician and a consequent one to boot. The man also has a certain charm because he doesn’t pretend to be anything more or less than he is and he’s rather good at being himself. He’s also blessed with a rather sharp wit and a dry sense of humor that is certainly appreciated among the Flemish populace. Third : N-VA has been a loyal partner in the Flemish government, even if they were resigned to govern with left wing socialist party SP.a. Furthermore, N-VA’s message to cut deeply into the pockets of the unemployed by limiting the duration of eligibility for unemployment benefits hits home with the traditionally hard working Flemings, even if the majority of these Flemings don’t necessarily want the secession of Flanders. And lastly, unlike the Vlaams Belang, N-VA is indeed a democratic party. Having a nationalist agenda doesn’t change that.
This entire scare mongering against N-VA apparently seemed to worry the international economic markets, who, ever ready to make a profit from someone else’s recession, are poised to speculate against the Belgian National Debt. This is merely economical logic, because if Belgium falls apart in two states, who will pay off the Belgian National Debt? Our journalists reported in their blogs that they were overrun with mails and calls from their foreign colleagues, who wanted to know what was going on. One even spoke of a Serbian colleague who – recent history in mind – wanted to know if the Belgians could avoid civil war. This prompted N-VA to announce and international press conference to appease the international markets and explain that these were just scare tactics from mainly the francophone politicians and media, as foreign journalists apparently read the francophone press more than they do the Flemish.

One Flemish political commentator even wryly remarked in his blog post that he thought that CDH’s party leader Joèlle ‘Madame Non’ Milquet was on the payroll of N-VA’s PR department, as she made a lot of crass comments about how the language border, established in 1966, was a sociological mistake and that Brussel was 90% francophone anyway, so a demand for a ‘corridor’ to connect the capital to Wallonia seemed ‘like the natural thing to do’, therefore treading flat out on the territoriality of both regions and enraging even those Flemings who aren’t nationalist at all. I can only imagine the very large smile on De Wever’s face when she made that comment. My take on it is that Milquet seems as imbalanced as a certain Slovene politician was made out to be by his former Croatian colleague, not in the least because she makes this election all about the Brusselian francophones and not about the Wallonians in general, who are, according to independent press south of the language border(most newspapers are working out of Brussel and hence have a francophone staff and stance) are sick and tired of their own politicians. Having a Wallonian guitar player in my band, I can only attest to that statement. Which Is good news for the Parti Socialiste, as all the political ground gained by CDH and liberal MR/FDF will almost assuredly be ceded back to them after Sunday. The downside is that even the PS refuses to tell its constituents that there are massive budget cuts on the horizon and keeps promising higher unemployment benefits and pensions while there is no money. It is more important, it seems, to fend off the spectre of Flemish nationalism and make these elections about Francophonia, as the Brussels Capital Region is now called.

Not that the Flemish political parties lagged behind in trying to scare the voter into not voting for N-VA, as I’ve already established. But only in this final week they seemed to find their feet to counter N-VA’s popularity, by addressing several economic issues in their party programme. To have any chance of winning, they should have done this from the start, on either side of the language border. As it stands, though, N-VA stands to gain a lot of votes and thus seats in parliament, which puts the ball in their court if they win the election. Traditionally, it’s the winning party who provides the prime minister, but De Wever already said he would not become prime minister, if it meant he had to make too much concessions. A smart move, as this means he and his party could once again claim being consequent when negotiations fail once again (and that is a definite possibility) and we’ll gear up for another election, which is bound to piss off the voters even more than they already are now throughout this kingdom. If N-VA play their cards right, they might not only win the current election this time around, but also the next one, which would put them another step closer to the Belgian dissolution scenario they adhere to.

However, De Wever can’t help himself sometimes and just last Monday he said to be in favour of the termination of Brussels as a region, which made all other parties (excluding the Vlaams Belang, of course) go apeshit and then some. His mathematical logic for doing so is near perfect : Brussels as a region is governed by a parliament with no less than 900+ officials, has 16 municipalities that are all governed by their own mayors and their cabinets who mostly care for nothing but their own interests and hence are called ‘baronies’, has no less than SIX police zones that have NO coordinated policies (one frequently recurring example is that when trailing a suspect, police cars need to switch radio frequencies as they transit from one zone into the other) and lastly, if not for ‘solidarity’ from the regions – but mostly from Flanders, as it also pays ‘solidarity’ contributions to Wallonia, which in turn donates some of that cash to Brussels – Brussels would be so bankrupt, it would be classified as a third world state being in debt the way it is. Keep that in mind whenever you visit Brussels again. Unfortunately, no politician, neither Wallonian nor francophone (and there is huge a difference between the two) is even willing to consider this, just as they aren’t willing to consider righting these severe wrongs to the benefit of everyone living and working in Brussels. I know this seems like I’m down with the nationalists, but unfortunately for those who think otherwise, I don’t ignore plain facts in order to be considered politically correct by any francophone who should happen to read this. Nevertheless, if De Wever would have wanted to play the election game strategically, this was a wrong move, as other parties were given fuel to counter argue the ‘peaceful dissolution’ policy he said to be favouring.

Friday, June 11th, one month before the Flemish National Holiday. So, where does this all lead to? Most political commentators still predict a giant win for N-VA, as Bart De Wever has won all televised debates so far, which is no mean feat when you’re up against six other party presidents in Flanders. The man is just an excellent debater, as he once again managed to show in the final debate on commercial TV station VTM earlier this evening. He may have been wavering (pun intended) in the past week when attacked on N-VA’s economic standpoints, but he didn’t budge. Given the bashing the Christian democrats got in Holland two days ago at that country’s national election, people are assuming this could be the case for CD&V as well. While the liberal VVD won the elections in Holland, there is a lot of ambiguity about its Flemish pendant, Open VLD. Not even the presence of VVD party leader Mark Rutte at the Open VLD party congress yesterday can help predict whether the party will gain or lose votes. SP.a has not been able to weigh in on the election debates until the last week, which may work for them, since it’ll be fresh in the voters’ memories, or work against them because it’s a matter of too little, too late. Green party Groen! will most likely consolidate its percentage from last year’s regional elections, but won’t in all likelihood gain more than a few percentiles. Something which is being overlooked, but I find very important is that extreme right party Vlaams Belang has done a fine job destroying itself from within over the past few years and is on its way down. For more than twenty years the party leadership has remained in the hands of Filip Dewinter and Gerolf Annemans, which created a lot of dissent within the party bureau with those who wanted the VB to run a different course. I have to say this pleases me, even though I am aware that this party is down – and severely down, now it is fighting against a democratic alternative when it comes to Flemish nationalist issues in N-VA – but not out (yet). Nevertheless, their core business of sewing hatred and racism by attacking muslims and Islam in general, the – admittingly – lax Belgian immigration laws and their traditional outcry for a police state (yawn) went largely unheard this campaign, something which a true democrat can only be pleased about. An economic and constitutional crisis can sometimes be a blessing in disguise…

In the south, the PS will most likely reestablish its monopoly position, backed by a strong Ecolo, the Wallonian green party. MR/FDF will probably do well in the B-H-V region, but I suspect they will get punished for their bad government and immobilism of the past three years in the rest of Wallonia, as well as making it all about B-H-V without taking the rest of the region into account. CDH stands to go the same route.

Of course, these are all just guesses. While my suspicion against politics, politicians and political parties prompts me to keep an eye on what they’re doing to this country and its people, I am not a professional political commentator and as such, I can only give my own opinion based on whatever political instinct I’ve cultivated over the years. But I am rather certain that N-VA will take a huge leap forward, even if other parties and journalists will want to minimize their result if they won’t gain as much as the polls predict and will speak of a ‘victory defeat’ if such is the case. Whether this will be to this party’s advantage or not remains to be seen. There already have been rumours abounding about secret negotiations between N-VA, CD&V and the PS, in order to install a federal government which mirrors those of the two regions. Bart De Wever even admitted as much last night. As I’m writing this, only 24 hours remain until the voting stations open their doors. I don’t think we’ve had such an interesting election campaign for as long as I can remember and its results might, eh, result in me and my fellow countrymen waking up in a different country 48 hours from now. It’s either that, or more of the same for the next four years. Just before turning in this piece, I read a chronology of the current political problems concerning B-H-V by Prof. Dave Sinardet (a Fleming, in spite of his French sounding last name), who pointed out that this election is in fact the end result of several political parties on either side of the language border putting their own party political interests above the greater good by blocking negotiations whenever it suited them best. In short, he says the responsibility for the current situation lies largely with them. While I believe there is also an underlying ‘francophone’ issue concerning B-H-V that has been going on for over forty years and the responsibility thereof lies mostly with the Wallonian parties who refuse to respect the territorial boundaries for purely political gain, Sinardet’s analysis is by and large a correct one, as is his assessment that the polarization between Flemings and Francophones only increases due to this political scheming. And if this kind of scheming and the resulting immobilism will continue over the formation talks and, say, the next year or so, that much dreaded split of this country, the nightmare scenario for every Francophone politician and much of the Flemish ones, might get even nearer than it is today. If I wanted to keep Belgium in existence (I’m neither saying I would or wouldn’t), I don’t think I wouldn’t want that on my conscience, but then, I’m not a politician and it is crystal clear that several politicians on either side have not learned that lesson and they maybe never will. For now, let’s see what the voter has to say…

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.

One thought on “And The Loser Is… Belgium”

  1. Update : N-VA has overwhelmingly won the election with a whopping 28.4% in Flanders and 20.5% on a national level. All parties but SP.a, which retained the status quo, have lost several seats to the party.

    As predicted, the PS won back their lost ground with 35.3% of the regional votes, 9.9% nationally. MR/FDF lost seats, but both CDH and Ecolo managed to retain their status quo.

    In all likelihood, this means that my assumptions will prove to be correct when it comes to the composition of the new federal government with an N-VA/SP.a/CD&V coalition on Flemish side, with the PS and possibly CDH and/or Ecolo on the Wallonian side.

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