Monday, 17 September 2007

Background: is this the real life, is this just phantasy?

Tomorrow a hundred days will have gone by since the elections of June the 10th in Belgium, and negotiations for the formation of a new government have still not really started. But how worrying, how deep is the Belgian crisis? Since a few weeks foreign correspondents in Brussels – there are a few thousands of them, mainly to cover the European commission and parliament – have started to file stories about the break-up of their host-country. But oddly enough, in the 177 year old nation that seems to fall apart, no bloodshed, no riots, no protest are to be reported. Not even a demonstration larger than the usual twenty nationalistic hotheads. How real then is this story? The political stalemate in the country is unprecedented, but few people let their sleep over it. Some passionate arguments about Flemish and Walloons filters through in the newspapers, but the television-talkshows still think the subject will not make them cash in more viewers. In search for an explanation many commentators call for the late surrealist and Brussels painter René Magritte: ceci n’est pas une crise. But there are serious analysts too who defend the thesis that all the nationalistic rhetoric is nothing but a cover-up for personal ambitions or ideological preferences that have to be hidden, at least for the moment. For personal ambitions they look to Didier Reynders, the leader of the Walloon liberals (picture: the man in the middle). He is still minister of Finance in the outgoing government and a shrewd politician from Liège who would love to become the first Walloon prime minister of the country in 34 years. Analysts who see in this ambition the linchpin of the crisis point to the provocative comments that Reynders uttered each time the Walloon christian democrats were about to give in. In that way he torpedoed every chance of success of the main candidate for prime ministership, Yves Leterme, during the forty days that the latter was formateur. No, no, other analysts say. This is above all an old Belgian story. Each time a governement of christian democrats and liberals is made possible by the electorate, the union wing of both the socialists and the christian democrats will do everything to impede it. This happened in 1977, 1987 and 1992, and is happening now again. Look to the behaviour of the Walloon christian democrats, says the argument, who are refusing every compromise on the nationalistic issue. And they will probably continue to do so until the other parties accept that the Walloon socialists are invited to the negotiating table. For this latter thesis exists a Flemish variation. Ever since the introduction of universal suffrage there has always been a strong majority of the left in Wallony. In Flanders it was usual centre-right majorities that the electorate turned out, sometimes interrupted by moves to the centre-left. Since the national parties have split in Flemish and Walloon wings in the nineteen seventies every formation of a federal government has therefore been a match of armwristing: shall the coalition be centre-right (good for Flemish voters) or centre-left (good for Walloon voters). For 27 of the last 35 years this resulted in centre-left federal governments. When between 1981 and 1987 a centre right government came into power to tackle an extreme budgettary crisis, it was highly popular in Flanders and extremely unpopular in Wallony. The result was that the Walloon socialist, then in the opposition, rose to almost 50 % of the Walloon votes in 1987. The Walloon christian democrats made the government fall after only two of the four years in its second term, formally on a nationalistic issue. There is also a third analysis about the present crisis. This one is mainly to be heard in Walloon media. In this scenario the villain is Bart de Wever, the president of the Flemish nationalist N-VA(picture: the man on the left: the man on the right is the president of his cartel partner CD&V, Jo Vandeurzen). This rather small party formed a cartel with the CD&V of Yves Leterme. Together they became stronger than apart, and in an orange-blue majority the five or six seats the N-VA obtained on June the 10th are needed to obtain a majority in parliament. Now, say the analysts, de Wever is an advocate of Flemish independence – he acknowledged many times that this will be the outcome of history – so it is logic that he defends his nationalistic demands so sharply as to prevent a compromise and bring his ultimate goal nearer. De Wever, by the way, denies. The future will show whatever analysis was the right one. But all of these theses demonstrate again that the nationalistic issue only becomes a political hot spot when it gets mixed with other themes. But the reverse is also true: if it should be true that the politicians play the nationalitic card to hide some more trivial political ambitions, they never are fully sure how long they ride tiger and when the tiger starts to ride them. The breaking-up of countries has never been a simple rational affair, and, although everything is still remarkably quiet in Belgium, in the present stalemate and uncertainty every unexpected or even stupid incident can start a process that nobody will be able to control.

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